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As a US Army Green Beret, I’ve said those words more times than I care to remember. That’s because we tend to have a bad habit of getting surrounded by the enemy on purpose. You see, Green Berets parachute in below the noise and then we offset away from the chaos. Then we walk in with just 12 guys, where we eventually connect at exactly the right spot with precisely the right person, a village elder or a tribal chief, and then we immerse ourselves in the language, the culture. When the time’s just right, we help the little guy stand up against the big guy from the bottom up.

Green Berets achieve strategic results by, with, and through indigenous populations, usually who are very different than we are and who live in some of the most conflict-riddled places on the planet. In fact, we often find ourselves leading people who are very reluctant to follow us in the beginning.

Nowhere was that more true than Afghanistan in January 2010. We were losing the war. There were more Taliban in the rural areas than when we started in 2002. A handful of us were selected to design and implement a new plan that would put our Green Berets out back in the rural areas helping Afghan tribes stand up against the Taliban.

The biggest problem with this was the level of violence that had plagued the country. Imagine your neighborhood having endured 38 years of nonstop fighting, right on your block. These little villages of 800 people had seen so much trauma that they were collectively paralyzed between the most basic human functions of fight and flight. They were stuck in what anthropologist Patrick Christian calls inescapable shock.

To work with these folks, we would bring them into the courtyard and simply make three promises. One, if you don’t want us in your village, we’ll leave right now. Two, if you do work with us, it’s going to get harder before it gets easier. Those Taliban thugs down the road are going to come for you, they’re going to come for your children, and they’re going to come for us. And three, when they do, our little team is going to go up the ladders onto your rooftops and we’re going to fight them whether you do or not.

Promise two always came true first, usually within days, if not hours, of us moving into a community. At night as locals huddled in their homes and after we’d gone to bed, contact. From the edge of the rooftop, we fought all night long until the sun came up, then we’d hobble down those ladders carrying our wounded and sometimes carrying our dead. This would go on night after night. Up those ladders while the Afghans stayed down below.

Then one night in the middle of a fight off to the side, we heard a rifle shot, saw a muzzle flash, and it was shooting in the same direction we were, but it wasn’t from our rooftop. One farmer had made a decision to go up onto his roof and defend his home. It was a very small shift in the mood, but we’d take it. Because within two to three weeks of us going up those ladders night after night, before we could get to the last rung of our ladder, every rooftop in the village was pouring rifle fire back into the source of the Taliban attack, breaking it off before it even started. Not in one village, not in six villages, but this story played out in 113 villages across rural Afghanistan in less than two years.

Local Afghans have always stood up for their villages. But how did these folks go from inescapable shock to an overt willingness to climb up on a rooftop and stand shoulder to shoulder with men they didn’t even trust two weeks prior and endure intense rifle and machine-gun fire and face certain enemy retaliation? Not because they had to, but because they chose to.

That’s what I’ve come to call Rooftop Leadership.

These same old-school Green Beret interpersonal skills that we used in these rough areas can help you lead here at home. You don’t have to be a Green Beret working in a tribal area to see that your world now and the world I lived in then are not that far apart.

So how do we lead people who are too skeptical, angry, or frightened to follow us?

It starts with you.

I’ll see you on the Rooftop in Fort Lauderdale in May.

April 24th, 2024 by

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