In 1784, after the Revolutionary War and the ending of France’s protection, America’s merchant ships began to be attacked in the Mediterranean and seized by Barbary pirates, its sailors forced into slavery. For 15 years America would pay an annual ransom and tribute of $1 million to the Barbary states for the safe passage of American ships and the return of American hostages. This amounted to 10% of U.S. revenues amid its significant war debts. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received the support of Congress to send the USS Constitution and a handful of warships over the horizon to the coastal waters of North Africa for “the protection of commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers.” Under the command of Commodore Edward Preble, the U.S. Navy went to war in a faraway land. Due to the absence of timely communication between Washington and its deployed forces, success required clear orders be communicated with a shared understanding of the strategy, objectives, and limitations so the Navy and Marine leaders on the front lines could act with autonomy and agility. Thus began the U.S. Navy’s culture of centralized command with decentralized control.
I was exposed to this culture in training and combat throughout my Navy career, and the importance of communication and connection to achieve high-trust and collective consciousness of shared beliefs, ideas, and perspectives which result in adaptive, high performing teams.
181 years after the First Barbary War, I was a young Lieutenant in the USS Coral Sea battle group, sent into the same waters of North Africa’s Gulf of Sidra by President Reagan. Our mission was to defy Moammar Khadafy’s claim of territorial waters 200 miles off the Libyan coast and his famously proclaimed “Line of Death.” As a flight leader of FA-18’s, intercepting and escorting Soviet-made fighters flown by Libyan pilots and their Syrian instructors, I shared a common understanding of my mission with the rest of the battle group and the Sixth Fleet Commander.
Admiral Kelso had flown aboard Coral Sea the week prior to personally speak with the commanding officers of all the ships in the battle group and the flight crews in Air Wing Thirteen. Lots of discussion, questions, back-and-forth throughout the chain of command resulted in a shared understanding of the various perspectives and challenges as we achieved alignment and a high level of trust. Admiral Kelso trusted me and my fellow FA-18 pilots to act with autonomy within the rules of engagement to achieve mission success. Our requirement was to keep the chain of command informed of our situation and intentions. The admiral was listening on the radios and based on his broader operational perspective had the prerogative to interject with a command for units to take a different course of action. But thanks to our foundation of shared consciousness and trust, he never needed to. And together, we succeeded in our mission to demonstrate to Khadafy that America only recognized 12-mile Libyan territorial waters.
Shortly thereafter, our bond of trust and decentralized agility passed a much greater test when Libyan-sponsored terrorists detonated bombs in Rome and Berlin, resulting in Operation Eldorado Canyon, a rapidly organized joint USN-USAF air combat operation that sent Khadafy a message not unlike the one sent by Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps many years before.
Be a High-Trust Leader: increase agility and resilience through shared consciousness by the entire team.
For insights into building shared consciousness, read General Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams that describes how he transformed the Joint Special Operations Task Force — a large, siloed, geographically dispersed organization — into one that was rapidly adaptive and responsive to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq.