The mission was supposed to take one hour. Task Force Ranger, a unit made up of US Rangers and Delta Force, flew via helicopter into Mogadishu, Somalia, to apprehend and extract two Somali warlords. At first, everything seemed to go like clockwork, but then disaster struck-Somali fighters shot down two of the Rangers’ Blackhawk helicopters. Unable to escape the city, the Americans were quickly pinned down under heavy enemy fire. In a battle that lasted through the night, nineteen US soldiers lost their lives and 78 were wounded. The “Battle of Mogadishu” became one of the deadliest in recent US history and was eventually chronicled in the book and feature film, Blackhawk Down.
Sgt. Keni Thomas was one of the US Rangers who fought to save the lives of his fellow soldiers that day. The lessons he learned gave him a unique understanding of leadership, responsibility, and teamwork. Keni left the Rangers in 1998, but ever since he has shared his personal story with audiences all over the US. His groundbreaking ideas, born on that fateful day, have helped countless individuals and businesses discover and nurture their “leaders within.”
Everyone Is Important
“The biggest thing, and what I hope people get from my story, is an understanding of how important they are to the people around them.”
Keni’s philosophy begins and ends with this simple idea-everyone is important. Everyone has a role to play. Just as every soldier has a responsibility to his fellow soldiers, every person has a responsibility to the people around them, whether in a large corporation, a small business, or in their family and community. When people understand how important they are and accept that what they do is crucial, they can begin to live up to their potential.
“You are an extraordinary individual, fully capable of greatness, and it’s your story. We’re all sitting back to see what you’re going to do with it, so why not step up and be the hero? Good Lord! Do something with it.”
Once people accept that they have unique talents and abilities to offer, then success becomes possible. But to achieve it requires a three-step process. These three principles, which Keni discovered through his military experience, can be applied to any area of life. They are Planning, Training, and Leadership.
What’s the Mission?
Keni says, “If you fail to plan, you can plan on failing.” Planning is the first step of any successful endeavor. In order to complete a mission successfully, everyone must have the same information about what to do and why they are doing it. In the military and in life, clear objectives lead to the best outcomes.
“We can teach you the planning process, operations orders, and how you try to make it all bulletproof. But really at the end of the day, you have to have an uncommon understanding of the mission. What are you being asked to do? What’s your part in it?”
Keni believes that a lack of understanding about the mission is one of the main reasons companies and individuals fall short of their potential. Every employee, from the top down, must understand what they are trying to achieve. In the same way, every individual must understand, for themselves, what they want out of life.
“When you walk out the door to face life, what’s your mission? You can’t just be going out there to collect a paycheck. It’s got to be something bigger than that. And once you understand what your mission is, now you’re a lot closer to firing on all cylinders.”
The United States Military is the toughest fighting force in the world, not because of its high tech weaponry but because of training. From the beginning, soldiers are taught, “Train as you fight; fight as you train.”
During the battle of Mogadishu, as Keni and his team were flying into the city, the swirling dust from the helicopters made it almost impossible to see where they were headed. It was Keni’s job to get the Rangers on the ground safely, and it was his pilot’s job to make sure they reached the target building.
Keni recalls the complete trust he had in his pilot. “It’s a privilege when someone trusts you, and Stan shouldered that responsibility. And how he did that is every single day he woke up and trained on it.”
Keni advises that, like the military, businesses create Standard Operating Procedures for every position and that employees train regularly. He also coaches that it’s important to always be “in training,” learning new skills and developing talents. “Just enough to get by” is never enough to achieve real, lasting success.
“Leadership is YOU and ME,” says Keni. Leadership, on all levels, is Keni’s third key to success. On the first day he joined his regiment, Keni and his fellow soldiers were told that they were all expected to lead.
“We’re looking around, and we’re brand new. Who are we leading? We all thought that leadership meant being in charge of somebody, but it doesn’t. You’ve got to get that out of your headspace. Leadership is the example we set for the people we serve.”
Keni encourages companies to cultivate excellence by using this definition of leadership. Every person, from the frontline worker to the CEO, should feel important and should be encouraged to lead by example.
“You’ve seen it. You’ve walked into companies where the bottom people don’t feel important, and that’s a leadership issue. You will never get outstanding unless you make them understand how outstanding they are.”
Look to Your Left and Your Right
For Keni, it all comes back to taking care of the troops. In Somalia, Keni’s entire perspective shifted when he witnessed the death of a fellow soldier. In that moment, Keni realized that he had one responsibility, to make sure his people got out alive.
“When it comes down to it, it’s so simple. It’s the same thing we’ve been taught since we were little kids. You are your brother’s keeper. Hold your sister’s hand when you cross the street. Take care of the people to your left and your right. That’s how you impact lives.”
Keni’s personal mission now is to take care of soldiers coming home. He is building a network of veterans helping other veterans adjust to civilian life.
“Just because you get off of an airplane from Afghanistan and step off in America does not mean you’re home. It’s a very difficult transition because when you were in the military it was clear who you were, your sense of purpose, what you were supposed to be. You made a difference in the people around you.”
If Keni can bring one message to the world, it is to take care of each other, to step up and take responsibility for the people to your left and your right, even when it’s hard or painful.
“We don’t have to be happy about the situation we’re in. You can say ‘It’s not fair,’ ‘I didn’t sign up for that.’ I get it, but you’ve got to own it. If you don’t, who will? Here’s where it comes back to those basics: If you understand how important you are, you begin to live up to it. Look to your left and your right. Take care of the troops. Because alone you will fail. You will never take the hill alone.”