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Vol. 4, No. 8
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Be Where the Action Is*

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2006 William A. Cohen, PhD  

The Vietnam War was a tough, dirty war that was so controversial in the United States that after more than thirty years after it’s end, it has still left psychic wounds that have yet to heal.  But the courage and performance demonstrated by Americans that fought this war, especially special ops units,  have never been doubted.

On March 14, 1969, the Navy seals were in the forefront of some of the toughest action. Lieutenant Joseph R. (Bob) Kerrey was a young naval officer commissioned a couple years earlier after graduating from the University of Nebraska. He volunteered for the SEALs and made the grade through its tough training. He had already led many combat operations with his SEAL team when he was ordered to lead it on a mission to capture important members of the enemy’s area political cadre known to be located on an island in the bay of Nha Trang. It was to be a tricky operation. Not only must his SEALs attack against superior numbers, but the objective was not to kill, but to capture these enemy political leaders alive. Kerrey knew the dangers, and as a SEAL team leader he knew his job was to lead from the front and be where at the critical point – where the toughest action was likely to take place.

To approach unobserved, Kerry  led his team up a 350-foot sheer cliff.  This part of the operation itself was dangerous and far from easy. Moreover, had to be done in absolute silence. Gaining the summit, Kerry positioned his men above the ledge on which the enemy was encamped. They could look down and clearly see the enemy below. Kerrey split his assault force into two elements. He led one in a stealthy night descent right in to the enemy’s camp. Almost on top of their objective, they were spotted and the enemy opened up with an intense fire. Just as Kerrey touched down on the ledge, a grenade exploded almost at his feet. He was badly wounded. Although bleeding profusely and in great pain, He continued to direct the enemy and control its fire on the enemy. However, with fire from both sides about equal, they were at an impasse. Now was the time to introduce the surprise. Kerrey directed that  the other element of his team open fire. The enemy was totally unaware of the other element and they panicked. The enemy was now in a devastating crossfire. They kept their heads down and didn’t move. Kerry immediately ordered an assault and they overran the enemy headquarters. The SEALs didn’t waste time. They knew who they were after, and they identified and took prisoner those of the enemy they were looking for..

By this time, Kerrey’s multiple wounds began to tell. They almost completely immobilized him, but he remained up front where the action was, still completely in charge. On his orders, his team secured and prepared the extraction site so the commandos could get away before the enemy could react with their much larger force. Kerrey and his SEAL team with their prisoners were evacuated by helicopter on his signal. The enemy leaders who were captured provided critical intelligence. 1,2

Lieutenant Kerrey’s wounds were serious, and he lost a leg because of them and was forced to retire disabled from the Navy. However, the principles of his commando service in the SEALs never left Bob Kerrey, not as Governor of Nebraska, not as a U.S. Senator, and not as a university president. He remained, at the head of those he led, out in front at the critical point of action..


Leading from an Air-Conditioned Office is Not Recommended

If you want to accomplish impossible missions: extreme turnarounds, high velocity, first-to-the-market new product introductions, or wildly effective, unexpected competitive strategies against larger more powerful competitors, you’ve got to be right on the firing line, regardless of hardship or risk or competing activities. You cannot lead effectively from an air-conditioned office in actions which are clearly the most important to the overall situation. You must be out there where the important actions are taking place.

Tom Peters, the business writer and consultant popularized the simple fact of what Napoleon had said years earlier in a battle context. Napoleon had recommended that a leader “march towards the sounds of the guns.” Peters recommended a leadership technique he called “management by wandering around.”  It was probably the legendary CEO Herb Kelleher of Southwest airlines who knew  how to implement this best. His basic philosophy was that employees don’t want to be managed they want to be led — and you can only do that by setting the example.3 You can’t give much of an example from an air-conditioned office.

The key is to be where the action is.  That kills two important “birds” with one stone. First, people can see you where things are happening, sharing their problems, hardships, failures and successes. The second “bird” is equally important. Since it is an important axiom in business and special operations that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, being where the action is insures that you can immediately see what’s happening and can take immediate action where necessary, cutting through layers of potential miscommunication and talking directly with your commandos who must get the job done.


You Must Be There to Lead and Be Seen

Sometimes, just being there, taking charge, and taking the necessary action can have a tremendous effect. One of my first jobs when I left the military was working as director of research and development for Sierra Engineering Company in Sierra Madre, California. A larger corporation has since absorbed this company, which was in turn itself later absorbed. However, thirty years ago Sierra Engineering Company was well known by its original name in the field of what is called aviation life support equipment. This is equipment used primarily by aviators for both every day and for emergency use.

A man by the name of Aaron Bloom hired me. He was the company’s president and my direct supervisor. The company had a rather dramatic history. It was started just before World War II as a machine shop.  Sometime during the war it got into the business of producing oxygen breathing masks for military pilots, and by the 1960’s it was preeminent in this field. It produced just about every military oxygen mask made for U.S. and allied forces that used U.S. aircraft. Moreover, it not only manufactured oxygen masks used by civilian airline pilots, but dominated the market for the emergency yellow oxygen masks you see demonstrated before take-off by stewardesses.

Years earlier, Aaron Bloom had been my predecessor as director of research and development and then had been promoted to vice president of engineering. However, a year or after his promotion he had been fired by the then president of the company over a disagreement that was never quite clear..

In any case, Sierra had always wanted to develop a new product line. Ever since the advent of jet aircraft when pilots started wearing hard protective flight helmets made from plastic that abutted the oxygen mask, Sierra had wanted to get into the pilot helmet business. It would sell this product as it sold oxygen masks — in large quantities of upwards of 40,000 units in single buys every year by the U.S. government. A company called Gentex located then, as now, in Carbondale, Pennsylvania dominated the helmet market for military aviators. After Bloom left the company, Sierra’s president decided it was time to pull out all the plugs to break into this market for aviator helmets. He entered a bidding war that almost drove both companies into bankruptcy. However, Gentex prevailed and emerged victorious. Sierra, the loser, entered chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws. Moreover, the president of Sierra was found to have illegally invested employee retirement funds in his efforts to stay in the competition. This money was lost and in disgrace he committed suicide. Leaderless, the company shrunk from more than three hundred to less than fifty employees.

The bank contacted Aaron Bloom and brought him back in to run the company and see if it could be saved.  Ten years later when I arrived on the scene, the company had long since fully recovered. The story I heard of how this was done has served me as tremendous lesson in commando leadership ever since. I verified it later by talking to Bloom, government customers, and even the new president of Gentex. However, I heard it first from employees who had been there and gone through the experience. Bloom knew that to save the company, they needed an immediate cash flow. Contracts with the government were pending. If they could deliver the goods, they would receive money and this would buy the company survival time. Materials and machinery were already on hand to produce the helmets. The problem was, there was no longer a work force to either manufacture or assemble them, or packers to pack the helmets properly or ship them to their destination.

Bloom called everyone together and told them what needed to be done. To save the company, these helmets had to be manufactured, assembled, and shipped. To do this, all employees had to work and perform their regular jobs at peak efficiency from eight to five. Then, all of them, senior executives, engineers, secretaries, and janitors would report to the assembly line and take their orders from the few remaining production supervisors where they would work for another four hours building the helmets. The company would provide the meals, but they had to continue this “all out” work routine until the orders were shipped and fulfilled. Bloom led the way. He was on the production line where the action was with his sleeves rolled up every night, working with everyone else. They got the helmets out, and with this done Bloom was able to keep things going until after two years the company had worked itself out of chapter 11 protection from its creditors. By the time I arrived, company sales were at an all time high, and the number of employees had returned to normal. The lesson to me was very clear. The centerpiece of Bloom’s turnaround was  being where the critical action was taking place — in this case where the helmets were assembled.


The Mystery of Joan of Arc Revealed

I told this story several months ago, but it is important and bears retelling. One of the most amazing of “history’s mysteries” is that of the story of Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War between France and England of the 15th Century.  The English invaded France, and the French King-to-be,  Charles tried desperately, but unsuccessfully, to free his country from the English. Then out of nowhere this young, 18 year-old girl appeared. She announced to the future king that she had been chosen by God to lead the French armies. It is no mystery why the king finally agreed. Even his advisors said essentially, “Give her the command. We’ve tried everything else.” The French were beyond desperation.

The mystery is how, in an age that was hardly one of equal rights for women, this young, uneducated girl could have possibly succeeded, when seasoned French generals failed. Consider her first battle at Orleans. For eight months, the French Army had strived to break the English siege. The French Army had failed utterly. Then Joan took charge of the Army. Under her command they broke the siege in just eight days! For about ten months, until captured by the English, the French Army, led by Joan had an almost unbroken string of victories. Many of our greatest generals would like to boast a record like that. How in the world did she do it?

Reading some years ago, I came across an account written by one of the chroniclers of her age. Yes, the 15th century equivalent of Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw had managed an exclusive one-on-one interview.

“How do you do it?” the interviewer asked.  “Do you like to fight? Did you received special training in swordsmanship or warfare when you were growing up in your village?”

“No,” Joan answered. “Personally, I don’t know how to fight. But I have a large banner which all of my soldiers recognize. What I do is to look at the battlefield and see where the important action is and where it is crucial that we be in order to win. I ride to that position. My soldiers see my banner and where I have ridden. They follow me, and we win.”

Mystery solved. Joan got out in front and went where the action was. Even with no military education or experience of any kind, her soldiers went where they had to be, and she and they won repeatedly.


Attributes of Being Where the Action Is

In my analysis of  commando operations, I’ve identified four critical attributes. They are as important to business as to battle. These are:

  • Be in Charge

This means that you don’t sit back and let someone else do it. You don’t lead by watching. You get in and start leading.

  • Suffer the hardships

It isn’t always neat and clean where the action is. You get, hungry, tired and are under a great deal of pressure. Never mind, you press on and share every hardship with those you lead.  They’ll be hot and sweaty, and so will you.

  • Assume the Risks

Some so-called leaders think if they aren’t where things are happening and things go wrong they can blame the failure on someone else. Wrong! A leader is responsible for everything that happens to matter where located. On the spot, those who follow know that you are assuming the risks.

  • Share the Defeats and the Victories

I wish I could say that if you you are where the action is that you will never be defeated. I can’t. Sometimes you’ll win, others not, but every time you share your defeats and your victories with those who follow you, and that’s something positive.

1Edwin P. Hoyt, Seals at War (New York: Dell Publishing, 1993) pp.171-172.

2The  Medal of Honor Society, “Kerrey, Joseph R. 14 April 1969 Republic of Vietnam,”, accessed March 12, 2004

Edward O. Welles, “Captain Marvel,” INC. Magazine,  (January, 1992),  accessed March 23, 2004

4 Ben McConnell, “The Wild, Flying Turkey With Wings,”  (September 1, 2001)

5 Herb Kelleher, “Commitment,” Leader to Leader ( Spring 1997) No. 4,,  accessed March 23, 2004.

6Michael Lyga, Small Town Goes to War ,  “Ralph S. Klimek: U.S. Army: Merrill’s Marauders,”,  accessed March 22, 2004.

7Greg Way, Fallschirnjaeger 1939-1945, “The rescue of Mussolini from the Gran Sasso: 12th September 1943,”,  accessed March 22, 2004

 Tom Terez, “The Soft Side of a Steel Company,” , , accessed March 24, 2004.

9 “About Nucor,” Nucor Website,,  accessed March 25, 2004.

10 “Iverson, Ken, “Telephone interview with the author,” October 30, 1997.

*Adapted from Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2006)




Follow after me: for the Lord hath delivered your enemies.” – JUDGES 3:28

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