Unity #9: Mission Orientation

UNDER EXTREME STRESS AND PRESSURE

“If I was you guys sitting in your chairs right now, I’d probably be asking — what the f*** does this guy know about football? Okay? Alright? The truth is, you guys have probably forgot more about football than I’ll ever know. But what I do know about is performing under extreme stress and pressure. I do know what it’s like to have teammates counting on me with their very lives. I know what it’s like to perform in environments where you’re facing doubt. Second-guessing. Hesitation. The unknown.

I know what it’s like to focus and perform in an environment where you’re under a tremendous amount of fear and you have to hit a target because people are counting on you to do so. That’s something I would like to speak to you about today.

What I’m going to talk is what it was like getting into SEAL Team. Ultimately, their job is basically to get two things out of a guy — a man who will not quit no matter what, when ships are down, when that guy is pushed against the wall, when he has to go for six days straight, he has to perform without food or water, he has to go 14 days in the field in arctic temperatures, he will not quit, he will not drop the ball when people want him to f***ing show up. That’s the first thing they look for.

The second thing they look for is a man who can put his bulls*** aside, his ego, long enough to show up for his guys when they really need him. Now that has nothing to do with whether I like that guy or not. It has everything to do with will I put my **** aside for the betterment of the team — that the team can accomplish anything if I’m onboard.

That’s the only two things they’re looking for — you don’t quit, and you show up for the team.”

— Richard Machowicz, keynote to Oakland Raiders, 2009

***

OLYMPIC ROWING TRIALS, 1984

“8:30 a.m., Sunday, July 1, 1984

In a metallic megaphone voice, the official said, “To the starting line, please.”

The time of judgment had arrived. Olympic trials. 1984. Double scull. The finals.

We padded to the line, quiet and alone, feeling the stiff headwind that blew directly up the course. A headwind was good for us. The race would be longer, thereby giving us more time to crush our opponents. If we had been greeted by a tailwind, I would have thought of some equally good reason why it was to our advantage. […]

As we backed into the stake boat, I looked longer and hard over my right shoulder for any debris in our lane. Okay, our lane was clear. Then I brought my oar handles together and closed my eyes for a moment. Okay, this is it. I took three deep breaths. I sucked down the nervousness with the first breath. I cast away any doubts with the second. I moved into shadow-racing consciousness on the third. Then I listened for the starting commands.

A few moments later, Charlie Altekruse, in the next lane over, turned to us and said, “Good luck, guys.”

Neither Paul nor I responded to him in any way. We didn’t glare at him, or laugh at the absurd timing of his statement. Our silence was the first authentic example of cool we had shown since we arrived in Princeton. I wanted to say, “You’ll need more than luck this time, Charlie,” but I said nothing. Paul said nothing. We kept our eyes locked on the starter’s white flag.

Our shadow-racing consciousness had taken over. We had practiced sitting in this exact place, poised and ready, a hundred times, and we knew precisely what to do. No distractions broke through our barrier. Every heartbeat was unalterably present.

Charlie tried again. “Good luck, guys” he said, a little louder, as if we might not have heard him the first time. Was he trying to psyche us out, or was he sincere? It didn’t matter. My sister, The Distracter, had strengthened our concentration with tougher challenges than this. She would have been proud.

The start called our position: “Lane six, prêt?” No reply needed. Rev it up, Paul, high and hard. Here we go.”

— Brad Lewis, Assault on Lake Casitas, 1990

***

TSR’S SERIES ON UNITY, ISSUE #9: MISSION ORIENTATION

Almost exactly two years ago at TSR, we did a whole series exploring Toughness.

What is toughness? What is mental toughness? What is physical toughness? Where does it come from? How do people stay focused? How do they keep going through adversity?

Toughness #1 was Mission Orientation — this issue marks the first time in TSR that we dive into the same topic twice.

Last time we explored Mission Orientation, it was to the view of becoming tougher — we looked at the suicidal last-stand of Torii Mototada at Fushimi Castle during the end of the Sengoku Civil Wars. Torii’s Eastern forces were outnumbered 20-to-1, facing down the Western forces with 40,000 soldiers with a contingent of only 2,000 defenders.

The 2,000 defenders held out for 10 days, slowing the Western army which was then defeated at Sekigahara, unifying Japan for the next 250 years. They sold their lives dearly, fighting to the last man.

In that unique way of its culture, the Japanese have called Torii’s death in the flames of Fushimi Castle… “the most beautiful death in history.”

Most of us, of course, will never be fighting to our literal deaths outnumbered 20-to-1. But the mindset and spirit that enabled the defenders of Fushimi Castle to do their part to bring peace to Japan and victory to their side is the same one that leads to getting the most out of ourselves — whether that be in the highest levels of athletic competition in the Olympics and professional sports, serving in an elite military unit, or merely the everyday business of building maximally thriving teams and organizations.

For Unity — Mission Orientation is essential.

***

TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE OLYMPIC TRIALS — SHADOW TRAINING

Assault on Lake Casitas is certainly a strange book. I’ve never read a book that opened so slowly and boringly which then turned into such a barnburner by the end.

I almost quit the book in the first 14 chapters. Really, the only reason I kept reading is that both Kai and my mother were competitive rowers when they were younger, and I thought it might be nice to have some insight into the sport.

But starting Chapter 15 — whoa.

The backdrop of the book is an aging rower, Brad Lewis, with his last shot to go to the Olympics. The United States had boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, cheating Brad of a chance to compete at the highest stage during his prime.

1984 would be his last opportunity to compete in the Olympics, and the amount of insanity and craziness he had to go through to get there was… well, it was something.

On the way, he faced a number of heartbreaks and setbacks. Particularly fascinating is that Lewis didn’t come from the East Coast clique that was dominant in rowing. The head coach of the 1984 rowing team was the Harvard rowing coach, and during selection processes, the Harvard coach seemed to greatly favor Harvard students and alumni.

I won’t spoil all the details — it really is a riveting story — but let’s look at how dialed-in Brad Lewis and his partner Paul Enquist trained for the Olympic trails as a two man rowing team:

“After dinner each evening, Paul and I returned to the boathouse for one last workout. We arranged two rowing ergometers so that the machines overlapped, one slightly behind the other. The ergometers had big wheels, finely oiled chains, wooden handles — very sophisticated. But we left that gear alone. Our only accessories were the two mirrors, one in front of each machine. Paul sat in the stroke position. I sat in the bow position — exactly as in our double. Then we rowed the whole stroke cycle in pantomime.

From the first pseudo-stroke, our bizarre movement brought forth howls of laughter from other rowers, the coaches, even Charlie the dog. After a few false starts, deciding we looked too silly to continue, then deciding we’d look even sillier if we lost the double trials, we pantomimed a complete race. […]

The mirrors kept us honest. Paul could see my actions. I could see his facial expressions. The slightest sign of distraction, by either of us, was immediately evident. As expected, in that first several hundred efforts, we won. Hurray for us! Champions in our imagination.

Eventually, we developed a dozen different race scenarios: leading from the first stroke, trailing until the last stroke, and my favorite, hitting a buoy, losing an oar, and then having to recover in time to catch up and win the race. Throughout these scenarios we always maintained one common thread — intense, unyielding concentration.

My sister, Valerie, stopped in Ithica for a few days […] I recruited Val to be The Distractor. Val’s goal was to make us look away from the mirrors and she threw herself into the task with complete abandon — jumping around, screaming, dumping water on us. Any action was legal. Once Valerie even read from one of her Harlequins: “She thrust her body closet o her lover’s chest, and with squeals of pain and delight she lowered herself onto…” Pure concentration, eyes glued to the mirror. Paul and I sought flawless technique, powerful rhythm, and cool control, all within the heat of passion. […]

A man goes through many changes in 2000 meters. Some are not pretty. Some make you hate yourself. Some make you wonder if you’ve been rowing for only three or four days. To avoid that fate, we prepared for all possibilities. If a meteor landed ten feet off our stern, we would not blink. Paul and I would be aware, yet impassive to the outside world. Every ounce of energy would be funneled into the water and not wasted by looking around, worrying about our opponents, wondering about things that didn’t concern our primary goal — to be first across the finish line.

***

CLEAR FOCUS

Classify this under “everyone knows it in theory, but most people don’t actually do it” — first and foremost for Mission Orientation, there needs to be a single known clear focus for the team.

Sometimes this is obvious — for Lewis and Enquist, it was winning the gold medal in the Olympic rowing event in 1984. They tuned all their efforts to it.

Oftentimes, it’s not as obvious. As we discussed last issue in Norms and Defaults, Bill Walsh’s goal when he took over the failing 49ers franchise wasn’t about winning a championship or even having a winning season — rather, it was to get everyone in the organization buying into a standard of performance and aiming for professionalism and perfection in all of their efforts.

Sometimes it’s not obvious at all — oftentimes, there isn’t a clear imperative for an organization and many things could work. In this case, I think Noah Kagan offers good guidance

“Create a clear goal. This is key. For our company goal, we had a specific goal for revenue — and that’s what everyone on the team know.

I could literally text or call anybody on the team right now, and 100% of the people would know what our goal was last year, and they will know what our goal is next year. Every single person, from support to success to marketing, sales, developer, designer, anyone, office manger… keep one clear that goal that everyone knows and sees on a daily basis.”

If you listen to Noah’s podcast or watch his Youtube videos, he constantly emphasizes the need for a singular goal to unify efforts

“Pick a singular goal… our goal at Sumo.com is always one goal to align the whole company. So at Sumo, our first year it was getting 50,000 email address. Our second year was getting 500,000 email addresses. Our third year, we didn’t have a goal, and we didn’t hit our goal then… the fourth year, we wanted to get 4,333 customers — we hit it. The next year, it was a certain traffic goal, the next year was a revenue goal, last year and this year have been revenue goals.

What’s a singular goal to align your business? Everyone in your business should known your singular goal.”

Noah goes into more depth on how to evaluate goals, break them down, and map them out to ensure they’re happening. But I reckon the magical line is this one —

“I could literally text or call anybody on the team right now, and 100% of the people would know what our goal was last year, and they will know what our goal is next year.”

This is even more important in situations where this isn’t a single obvious priority in the way that the Olympics focuses an Olympic athlete’s attention. When building an organization, often many priorities would be possible — but everyone being focused on the same objective does wonders for unity.

***

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS

From Machowicz’s keynote to the Raiders —

“A man can only be beaten in two ways — if he gives up, or if he dies. I thought that was so profound. I thought that was so spot-on. But under extreme stress and pressure, that’s a pretty long sentence to remember. So I shortened it to —

Not Dead, Can’t Quit.

That meant as long as I had a thought, I was in the game — I was alive — I still had a chance. I wouldn’t quit.

As long as I had a single pulse in my body, I was still alive, I had a chance, I wouldn’t quit. My teammates could count me on me like that. I could count on me — like that. See, what is quitting? […] I want you to recognize something — the quitting conversation, it’s not as obvious as some people think. It’s a very subtle conversation, quitting. It starts off like this in SEAL Team — “Man, this is bulls***. Yeah? I gotta break ice? I have to ski in minus-sixty-five degrees below zero, to break the ice, to get into the ocean, and then dive on a submarine and drop a bomb off on it? It’s freezing cold. I’d much rather be home in bed, drinking something, chilling out, having a nice night… but that’s not what I chose. […] You chose this. That’s a really important thing to remember, especially when that quitting conversation starts to show up. It shows up when you’re fatigued. It shows up when you’re pissed off. Quitting is a conversation that is insidious. It’ll eat at you. And it’s an extremely reasonable conversation. It makes complete sense to quit. […]

Not Dead, Can’t Quit.

Not Dead, Can’t Quit.

It’s just that simple. People want to make it more complicated. Listen, if you ever hear one of your teammates talking about blaming somebody — my coach this, my coach that, my teammates are like this, the environment is like that, the league is like this — let me tell you, that is the beginning of a conversation called ‘quitting.’ Quitting on yourself. Quitting on your teammates. That’s where it comes from. It’s a very simple conversation, but it sounds completely reasonable at the time — and you can get a bunch of people to agree with you. Accomplishing your mission, hitting your target no matter what… that’s completely unreasonable. It goes against logic. It goes against odds. It goes against reason. You said you’re going to do it, so no matter what, you will do it. No matter what. See? Hitting your target, working together as a team? It’s all about being unreasonable. Not finding an excuse not to be part of a team. Not finding an excuse not to accomplish your objective. It’s the truth. It’s just that simple.”

That phrase stuck with me — “the quitting conversation.”

Isn’t it interesting what Machowicz is saying here?

He’s saying that the quitting conversation doesn’t start with a person saying, “You know, I want to fail here and give up.”

No, it starts by — noticing genuine and valid problems.

Isn’t that interesting?

The opposite of quitting looks perhaps very odd —

A few moments later, Charlie Altekruse, in the next lane over, turned to us and said, “Good luck, guys.”

Neither Paul nor I responded to him in any way. We didn’t glare at him, or laugh at the absurd timing of his statement. Our silence was the first authentic example of cool we had shown since we arrived in Princeton. I wanted to say, “You’ll need more than luck this time, Charlie,” but I said nothing. Paul said nothing. We kept our eyes locked on the starter’s white flag.

Our shadow-racing consciousness had taken over. We had practiced sitting in this exact place, poised and ready, a hundred times, and we knew precisely what to do. No distractions broke through our barrier. Every heartbeat was unalterably present.

Odd, no?

Lewis and Enquist had a gameplan for winning the Olympic trials. They were prepped and rehearsed. When a competitor wished them good luck, this was not part of the plan, and the plan included tuning out everything that wasn’t part of the plan.

“Charlie tried again. “Good luck, guys” he said, a little louder, as if we might not have heard him the first time. Was he trying to psyche us out, or was he sincere? It didn’t matter.”

Now, this might well seem unreasonable — maybe it is unreasonable. In fact, by normal standards, it is certainly unreasonable. What’s the harm in returning a “good luck,” albeit one said with particularly odd timing when most athletes were looking to enter into the zone of concentration?

Even then, though, what’s the harm of letting one’s mind go acknowledging Charlie, wishing him good luck, etc, etc?

But the question answers itself, doesn’t it?

The harm is that it draws one’s attention away from the single-mindedness in pursuit of the goal. It wasn’t part of the plan, it wasn’t relevant, and therefore it was — ignored.

“We didn’t glare at him, or laugh at the absurd timing of his statement. […] I said nothing. Paul said nothing. We kept our eyes locked on the starter’s white flag.

***

TRAINING AND OPERATIONALIZATION

Intense single-minded focus on the mission at hand is decidedly not normal.

It’s all well and good to set a clear focus and decide to aim single-mindedly for it, but that alone won’t produce Mission Orientation.

The key concepts have to be trained — relentlessly.

For me, reading the training sequence of Lewis and Enquist was worth the price of admission of Assault on Lake Casitas alone.

“The mirrors kept us honest. Paul could see my actions. I could see his facial expressions. The slightest sign of distraction, by either of us, was immediately evident.”

Training.

We talked a little bit about training last issue. No one trains enough.

Lewis and Enquist trained constantly, 10 hours a day, almost every day for the Olympics.

In the evening after too physically spent to go out on the water again, they trained on the erg machines in front of their mirror, practicing different race scenarios — including unpleasant ones like correcting from losing an oar during the race, or a long waiting time at the start line if the race was delayed.

No one trains enough.

Lewis and Enquist trained constantly, almost every possible minute they could train without going into exhaustion.

Maybe they trained enough.

Barely.

Nobody else trains enough.

Most people and most teams do not have a clear focus. Even if they do have a clear focus, most people are pulled in many directions and do not cultivate single-mindedness.

On a leadership level, it’s essential to develop a clear focus for all of the team, make sure it’s realistic and doable and adequate resources are there for it, and then train relentlessly to sharpen the skills and spirit of all team members.

***

GUIDANCE

You might consider going back and re-reading this issue from the start and taking notes — there’s many little embedded gems from Lewis, Machowicz, and Kagan.

In particular, there’s a few questions you can ask yourself and check with other members of a team you lead to assess —

1. “What’s the mission?”

Kagan’s statement should be the standard —

“I could literally text or call anybody on the team right now, and 100% of the people would know what our goal was last year, and they will know what our goal is next year.”

2. “How single-minded are we?”

Burn it into your mind — quitting starts as a very reasonable conversation.

Quitting starts by even paying attention to irrelevant factors.

Machowicz’s statement should be the standard —

“It’s just that simple. People want to make it more complicated. Listen, if you ever hear one of your teammates talking about blaming somebody, […] let me tell you, that is the beginning of a conversation called ‘quitting.’ Quitting on yourself. Quitting on your teammates. That’s where it comes from. It’s a very simple conversation, but it sounds completely reasonable at the time.”

This is counterintuitive, but Machowicz is saying that giving any non-productive attention to any negative factor is the path to quitting.

Single-mindedness puts all the attention on the mission and the factors within one’s control, and zero attention on irrelevant factors and factors outside one’s control. Is that the standard you and your team lives every day?

3. “How well-trained are we?”

Lewis and Enquist should be the standard —

“To avoid that fate, we prepared for all possibilities. If a meteor landed ten feet off our stern, we would not blink. Paul and I would be aware, yet impassive to the outside world. Every ounce of energy would be funneled into the water and not wasted by looking around, worrying about our opponents, wondering about things that didn’t concern our primary goal — to be first across the finish line.”

When Lewis writes that “If a meteor landed off our stern, we would not blink” — I believe him. I think he’s saying something literally true.

That’s an unreasonably high standard — that’s the standard needed to give one a chance at something like competing in the highest levels of athletics on the Olympic stage.

Are you trained to that degree? No? Do you need to train more? Yes?

Unity ain’t easy. Most people never get there.

It sounds so simple — have a clear mission, have everyone on the team know the mission, focus single-mindedly on the mission, and set up your training to sharpen people so that they handle everything within their control for the mission — and tune everything irrelevant out.

Heck, maybe it is simple.

It ain’t easy, though. The hypnotic pull of the irrelevant, the negative, the trivial, of distractions and bad feelings… these are strong things.

After Torii Mototada’s cavalry scouts returned and confirmed the report — they were outnumbered 40,000 to 2,000 — he wrote his last will and testament:

“It would not take much trouble to break through a part of their numbers and escape, no matter how many tens of thousands of horsemen approached for the attack or by how many columns we were surrounded… but that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult to account as loyalty. Rather, I will stand off the forces of the entire country here, and, without even one-hundredth of the men necessary to do so, will throw up a defense and die a resplendent death. By doing so I will show that to abandon a castle that should be defended, or to value one’s life so much as to avoid danger and to show the enemy one’s weakness is not within the family traditions…”

Mission Orientation.

Unity.

We’ll conclude next week with Loyalty and Friendship.

Until then, yours,

Sebastian Marshall
Editor, TheStrategicReview.net

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