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Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty

This chapter highlights the actions, and in retrospect, inactions, of arguably the most famous of Navy SEALS, Chris Kyle. The SEAL mission described in this chapter was to provide overwatch for soldiers that were securing a section of the city. During a tense sniper mission, Kyle noticed a figure who he thought could be a sniper holding a scoped weapon in the second-story window of a building several hundred yards away. However, the figure quickly disappeared not allowing Kyle to get a positive identification of the enemy. The rules for engagement were that if a SEAL shooter could PID - positively identify - a “bad guy with a weapon committing a hostile act or determine reasonable certainty of hostile intent, they were cleared to engage”. However, Kyle could not PID and protocol was to defer that decision to the next in charge, which was one of the authors. To make matters more uncertain, building identification was done by number due to the lack of street signs and the degradation of the city’s infrastructure due to the war. While all military branches utilized the same map and building numbers, building misidentification occurred. The author radioed into the commander on the ground the location of the troops who were securing the section of the city to ensure they did not have any personnel in the targeted building. The commander affirmed there was nobody from his command in the building and implored the SEALs to take the shot so his soldiers would not be put at risk. However, without PID the author was caught in the middle. Take the shot and risk it being fratricide, or not take the shot and risk the enemy sniper shooting at U.S. soldiers. The author held firm in his decision not to engage due to the lack of PID. After several tense back and forth conversations between the author and the ground commander, the author convinced the commander to re-clear the building. As the ground troops moved toward the targeted building to clear it, the author and Kyle immediately realized they had initially identified the wrong building number. In fact, the figure they were trying to PID was a US soldier. The ground commander thanked the author for not listening to his directive to fire on the target. In all of the uncertainty, the author remained committed to his decision. “In combat life, the outcome is never certain, the picture never clear. There are no guarantees of success. But in order to succeed, leaders must be comfortable under pressure, and act on logic, not emotion.”

The last district where I worked had 4 elementary school buildings. None of those buildings had assistant principals. Consequently, the principal was the de facto leader. However, there are two other positions that the elementary principal relies heavily on, the office manager and school counselor. In the principal's absence, they are seen as the leaders. It is the principal's duty to lead down the chain of command (see my blog on Chapter 10, Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command) to ensure those positions are comfortable making decisions in the principal's absence. They need to be able to be decisive amidst uncertainty. Fortunately, one of my elementary principals had taken the time to professionally develop his office manager and school counselor so they were ready to deal with situations in his absence. It was the perfect storm. The time was 3:20 PM, the time at which elementary schools are dismissed. The building principal was out of the building. I had taken a half-day off and was at home when I got the phone call from the building principal. “There is a man with a gun in my building. The State police are involved and we believe the intruder is no longer in the building”, he told me. I rushed out of my door, not knowing what to expect when I arrived at the building. It was eerily quiet when I arrived, no police, no noise, no one to visible in the hallways. As I entered the main office I was updated on the situation. At 3:20, the main doors had been opened for students to begin to leave the building. At that exact moment, a man entered and went into the main office. The office manager asked which child he was there for. He stated "I'm here for myself", which led to immediate suspicion. He then ran out of the office and down the hallway further into the building. At that moment, the office manager and school counselor made two immediate decisions. First, the school counselor got on the PA system and ordered a lock-down of the school (something that everyone in the building had practiced previously). This kept all students from leaving their classrooms and hallways clear. Second, the office manager followed the intruder down the hallway. While I can not recommend this action, I do think it was heroic. Additionally, the pursuit of the intruder by the office manager was most likely that the intruder exited the building through the first exit he came across. The intruder was in the building for less than 2 minutes. During the time the intruder was in the building, a weapon was not observed. About a half-hour later, the State Police came back to the building to let us know that the intruder had been captured. We were then able to take the building off lock-down and proceeded to dismiss the students. Later, we learned that after the intruder left the school building, he proceeded to steal a truck and ran over someone in the process of the theft. The state police pursuit of the stolen vehicle ended in a crash and apprehension of the intruder. It was at that time that the intruder's pistol was found. This situation had the potential to end very differently. The decisiveness amid uncertainty of both the school counselor and office manager prevented the situation from escalating into a tragedy. Administrators, teachers and students adhered to the intruder training, stayed calm under pressure and acted based on logic and training rather than emotion.

Thanks for reading!

Erik Bentzel


© 2019 by Erik Bentzel. 

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