Average reading time – 3 minutes 30 seconds
I was standing at the top of a mile long, tree lined avenue staring-down at the British Army’s sixth form college in Nottinghamshire.
At one end my parents and all they had done for me over the last sixteen years. At the other, the future I’d been dreaming of since I was a very young boy.
It may have been the end of the beginning for me, but it marked the beginning of the end in the minds of my poor, worried parents.
As I began the long, lonely walk down the driveway on that sunny September afternoon, they were making a huge sacrifice for their beloved son.
As we said our farewells my mum was fighting her strongest maternal instincts to protect her little boy so that I could live-out my dream. I could see her physically holding back the tears.
My Dad did what most dads did back then. He suppressed his emotions and kept them in check for the sake of me and my mum.
As I turned and walked away she finally allowed her emotions to spill out. At that point my dad looked at her and said;
“Sheila, imagine how you would have felt if he hadn’t made it into the Army.”
Whilst she didn’t want me to join the Armed Forces and potentially go to war, my mum showed true leadership in that moment.
She went against the evolutionary mechanism that all parents have to protect their children and keep them safe. My parents didn’t just allow me to join the Army, they provided me with huge support and encouragement.
They sacrificed their own needs and desires in order to give me what I needed to fulfil my dream.
At that point none of us knew that my mum’s fears would come true just six years later when I was deployed to Iraq for the first time.
Asking the unthinkable
It was on that first deployment to Iraq that I had to ask the unthinkable of two young soldiers.
The day had started in pretty much the same way as every other day had since I arrived in northern Kuwait in early 2003. Except on that day, things suddenly took an extremely different path.
A scud missile exploded 1km to the north of my position and immediately began spewing out thick, yellow-green smoke. The chemical weapon alarms had been activated and the first soldier to see it had done exactly as he should and shouted Gas! Gas! Gas!
After what seemed like an eternity I was ordered to crawl out from underneath the 4 tonne truck where I had taken cover and report to the Regimental HQ.
To this day I still find it hard to believe that I was actually given the order I was given. Time seemed to stand still. Was I actually being told to take two soldiers and complete the two-man sniff test?
The two-man sniff test
The two-man sniff test is the final-check that must be completed prior to ordering all troops to remove their gas masks after a chemical or biological weapon attack.
I picked two-young soldiers and we walked slowly yet deliberately towards the site of the explosion. This was without doubt the longest 300 meters of our lives.
Eventually we stopped and I had to make the biggest request of my leadership career. I asked those two boys to lift their masks and take one tiny sniff of air.
A sniff that they knew could trigger the beginning of a slow, painful death if I wasn’t able to get them to an advanced medical facility within 60 minutes or less.
But they completed this task without pause or hesitation.
Why? Because they knew that up until that point, I’d always put their needs ahead of my own.
True leaders will always put the needs of their teams ahead of their own. They will make personal sacrifices for the sake of their team, whereas weaker leaders will sacrifice the team for themselves.
When leaders behave in this way it builds huge levels of trust within their team.
People will feel safe and protected. They will know with absolute certainty that their leader cares about them deeply on a truly human level.
This in turn means that they will do incredible things when their leaders ask them to. As they did for me in Iraq in 2003.
I would do anything for my parents, for my leaders.
How far would your team go for you?
Find out more about this story in my #1 bestselling book, Mission: Leadership – Lifting the Mask here.