Leading Through Pain

The inexperienced leader can acquire a book and learn a lot about leadership from the careful guidance of an author, influencer, military leader, or a college professor.  I know this, because I was that inexperienced leader.  But what puzzled me is the question, what specific communication does the leader provide his or her subordinates during critical comments? Moments, like the half-time speech when the team is losing, or leading a 6-man boat crew during a long and grueling boat race in Navy Seal, “BUD/S Training.”  I routinely ask this question to young student athletes, young leaders, and usually it’s met with puzzled silence. What actually happens on that field? What does the future Navy Seal Officer say to his crew during the boat crew race?  What does the leader say in that moment to rally his or her teammates?  These were questions that continuously circulated in my head. And honestly, it’s been my goal since I started this foundation to find the answers.

This past week, I personally observed one of the answers.   More on that shortly.  First, we were blessed with an opportunity to deliver a leadership reaction course (LRC) to the Corinth Holders High School football team in Johnston County, North Carolina.  During this LRC, and with the outstanding effort and support from the United States Marine Corps., the team was divided in four squads of roughly 25 players, each squad with an elected leader. Each leader was hand-picked from the team captain. This leader was tasked with leading his squad through four different stations.  Each station included a physical training exercise and a mental/teamwork challenge. Each challenge was timed and ultimately, the squad that performed the challenges with the most speed and accuracy would be rewarded.  In addition, that leader would also receive a “Top-Performer” award.  So now that you have a better understanding of the layout of the event, let’s discuss the leadership.

I observed one station in particular that was considered to the be the hardest physical training.  During this specific station, student athletes were instructed to “build a house,” whereby each player would all line up, shoulder to shoulder, in a plank position and one-by-one, each student athlete would crawl underneath the human tunnel made by the “plankers” lined up shoulder to shoulder.  Once they made it through the tunnel, they would attach themselves to the end of the row, extending the “house” by one.  Then, the next in line would crawl through the tunnel and repeat the same process. The student athletes had to repeat this activity for 50 yards.  They soon figured out, roughly around the 25 yard marker, how painful an exercise this was.

Notably, each squad started out the exercise without saying a word, other than saying “Go!” once the athlete made it through the human tunnel and attached himself to the end, signaling the next athlete to head through the tunnel.  But, this was only making it harder for them. What they needed to do was to be vocal in order motivate their teammates to withstand the pain, and continue to hold their plank.  At one point, I yelled to them, “It’s awfully quiet, fellas.  You need each other right now.  That pain is starting to sink in.  It’s time to start yelling and encouraging your teammates.”  Sure enough, when they started yelling at each other to hold their position and pushed each other to hold their position, they seemed to find more strength in their unity.  That helped them get over the 30 yard peak and finish out the grueling 20 yards to the finish line.

I asked the squad leader after his squad completed the exercise, “What did you learn from this exercise?”  He said the following:

“We need to rely on one another when it gets hard. The pain was definitely a factor, but I didn’t want to let my teammates down. So I held my plank as long as I could. And I learned that communication is everything with leadership.  When we pushed one another, it distracted us from the pain.”

Interestingly, when the pain was overtaking them, those who succeeded in this exercise were the ones that considered the team first, and their own pain and misery second.  The best leaders did not want to let their teammates down, so they held onto their plank until they completed their 50-yard goal.  And, when everyone started to cave because they were only consumed with their own pain and misery, they were able to find motivation and distract themselves from the pain when the leader encouraged them hold their position and don’t quit.

Shortly thereafter, a special moment occurred that fermented the leading through pain concept.  One of the squads only had 5 players, leaving them one player short of being able to effectively complete the exercise.  A Private First Class (PFC) Marine instructor, and recent graduate from USMC bootcamp, volunteered to step in and assist.  And when the players began to build the house and  encountered the aforementioned pain and misery, this Marine started talking.  He yelled out to comrades, “Guys, this pain you are feeling is only in your head.  Distract yourselves and start thinking about something else. Your bodies are far more capable than what your mind is telling you right now.”  Notably, the players responded with energy and strength. They became stronger and started encouraging one another to hold firm.  Several of the weaker players who were once falling down, found the strength to maintain their position and hold on their plank with whatever fumes were left, facing complete exhaustion.  That PFC Marine was not only able to motivate the team to push forward through the pain and misery, he was leading them.

How many times have you faced adversity?  When pushed to your breaking point, did you quit?   How many times have you been in a situation where you wanted to give up because it would provide you with relief from the pain you are going through? This simple but painful exercise demonstrated to the football team, and to me, that our human bodies are capable of withstanding immense amounts of pain and torture, far more than we ever thought we were capable. It also taught me that when when we encounter the pain, we must find a way to distract ourselves.  And when we are leading a team, we need to make sure our team is doing the same.  Because if one of us falls, we all must suffer.  So to stay in the fight, you must lead.  You not only need to look past your own personal suffering, you need to encourage your teammates to do the same.  We are all capable of achieving enormous goals, but in order to get there we must be able to lead through the pain.