A lot of people know that from 2003 to 2007, Iraq’s al Anbar province was a dangerous place. In July of 2007, I joined a Marine headquarters at Camp Pendleton, one that was forming up that summer in preparation to deploy and take over responsibility for the province in early 2008.
In my section of the headquarters, all of my peers had experienced at least one previous combat tour in Iraq. We were in close contact with our colleagues who were then deployed and performing the jobs we would take over when we arrived. We had literally terabytes of information to use as reference, information that had been compiled by Marine, Army, and Special Forces units that had conducted prior deployments there, along with reports from a wide variety of intelligence sources. We studied the situation and planned, and studied, and studied some more. One thing was clear, the history of the insurgency in Anbar was simply brutal.
In the months leading up to our deployment, a group of us traveled to Anbar to check out the current state of things in the province, and we discovered that things were changing rapidly. The “Anbar Awakening” was unfolding and it appeared that Al Qaeda in Iraq was quickly losing ground. The number of violent incidents in the province had plummeted, and our counterparts told us their efforts were shifting to focus on things like improving the quality of local government and economic development. After our visit, the situation in the province continued on the same (improving) trajectory.
The pre-mission rehearsals we did took this into account, even as we also rehearsed for potential combat encounters. Anbar remained a dangerous place, as so many of us who had deployed there before knew. My first deployment to Anbar was from September 2004 to March 2005 and included the second battle of Fallujah. It took effort to reconcile my memories of Anbar with the improving conditions we had seen on our pre-deployment visit, and with the upbeat reports we were getting from our forward-deployed counterparts. (Don’t get me wrong, some U.S. servicemen and servicewomen did sacrifice their lives or were badly wounded during this time. However, the change in the overall level of violence was dramatic when compared to what it had been like before.)
When we arrived early in 2008, we found that much of the work continued to focus on things like improving governance, training the police, and stimulating economic development, all in an effort to stabilize the security situation. To this end, one of our engineering units performed a large infrastructure rebuilding project, repairing a major section of highway that ran into the city of Ramadi. It was state of the art stuff, including using fiberglass as reinforcement (instead of steel re-bar).
What a great project we thought, this will help commerce return to the area and hopefully increase the number of jobs available for the young men who lived there, the young men we would rather see working than fighting us as insurgents. So, we experienced a bit of shock and a lot more anger when we learned that within days of the project’s completion, a group of Iraqis took some construction equipment out to the site and tore up the recently completed road repairs. Cries of “al Qaeda has returned!” and “told you so!” were common in our headquarters, as many of us with previous combat tours in Anbar pointed to the project’s destruction as evidence that the insurgency was still alive.
After a little investigation, it turned out the most likely explanation for the project’s destruction was that the Iraqis wanted to get paid to perform the road repairs – they didn’t want our engineer units to compete with them for the reconstruction funds that were pouring into the province at the time.
Some of us accepted this explanation, as we were learning that conditions really were different in Anbar that year, and we needed to take this into account. Some of us rejected the idea, as we struggled to reconcile the Anbar of 2008 with the Anbar we had experienced on previous, incredibly violent deployments. The incident quickly receded into the background under the crush of our daily activities, but with hindsight and knowing that conditions continued to get better and better that year, it seems most likely that the competition for reconstruction funds explanation is probably the right one.
I recently read Michael Lewis’s great book, The Undoing Project, about the groundbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the duo who pioneered research on decision biases. Looking back, I think this incident from 2008 Anbar is a great illustration of confirmation bias in action. Even though we received regular reports before we deployed about the improved conditions there, and even though we saw first-hand things really were changing, some of us still couldn’t accept that the destruction of the road project might be due to the competition for reconstruction dollars, and not due to the insurgency. Instead, some of us saw the incident as confirmation of the violence we expected to see when in Anbar.
This can be a useful tale for leaders. Seeing the incident as a violent act of insurgents leads to one set of decisions, while seeing it as the work of Iraqis who wanted to garner reconstruction funds leads to a different set. Successfully confronting the emotions the incident generates while trying to make good decisions is a significant challenge, too. Knowing about the various kinds of decision biases humans are susceptible to, like confirmation bias, is a great help when developing ways to deal successfully with reports of this nature. The prepared mind of a leader who studied these biases and then thought through similar situations is in a much better position to perform effectively when confronted with like circumstances. Imagining these situations also prepares a leader to retain control of his or her emotions, much like a basketball player uses imaging techniques to keep cool when shooting free throws when the game is on the line.
As I’ve written about in previous blogs, self-awareness and understanding the emotions one is feeling in the moment helps leaders stay in control and maintain access to the rational thinking part of the brain. And, the leader’s work as a life-long learner helps prepare the mind to recognize things like decision biases in action. As my brother Bart says, 30% are born leaders – but the other 70% of us can learn how to do it effectively, particularly if we commit to practicing self-awareness and studying leadership with passion.