Gunny's Corner: How to put out Helmet Fires - Circus Act Part I

Most life lessons come with a story. It’s how we remember them. Either we were a part of something extraordinary, or privileged enough to have a front row seat. By some miracle blessed to me by the war-gods (Chesty Puller and ‘Hashmark’ Johnson), I was granted an eye-witness account of the most spectacular performance of dysfunctional management ever beheld in the free world.

Observing a circus

I pulled up a folding chair near the smoking area and grabbed a cigar from my bag. A Mountain Dew and a Montecristo Robusto went well to level the mood if I was to truly absorb the magnitude of the moment.

Two 7-ton trucks attempted to parallel-park in an open lot. When I say ‘open’ I mean a completely open area of earth, where not a car, tree, or any object existed within a 100-foot radius. However, there were three Marines ground guiding the vehicles into a precise location. A formation of Marines was on their fourth iteration of gear alignment. Placing the packs on the ground, shifting them from one side to the other, and then picking them back up again, only to move a few feet in a different direction. Two lieutenants were screaming at each other about a missing Marine, without actually looking for the missing Marine.

My amusement drew a crowd, and a few moments later our audience had grown by five.

“Gunny, you mind?” The young staff sergeant pulled up a chair next to mine.

“Of course not,” I said.

“Do you know what’s going on?”

“Have you ever seen a helmet fire in action?” I asked.

“A what?”

Starting a helmet fire

Helmet fires are a natural phenomenon. People of all backgrounds, sex, and upbringings have either felt the wrath of a helmet fire or have been the perpetrator themselves. It’s that moment when everything is a priority-one, urgent emergency and all logical thinking ceases. The frantic reactions cloud any opportunity to use common sense and the perpetrator runs around as if their scalp is wrapped in gasoline-soaked panty hose.

“You see him over there.” I pointed to another staff sergeant, running back and forth between areas, barking commands no one understood.

“I heard him before I saw him,” the staff sergeant said.

“Yep, he’s the one you always keep your eye on,” I said.

“Isn’t he just giving direction?”

“Does it look like he’s providing clear concise instructions?” I answered.

Rarely do I answer a question with a question, but the moment was too good to pass. As if on cue, the war-gods summoned another round of mayhem to amplify my point. A high-back Humvee pulled into the open lot and over 16 Marines climbed out of it. It should only hold eight. Another Humvee died right the middle of the lot, and at least five mechanics were working on it at the same time.

One specific mechanic, slightly smaller than the others, had somehow wedged himself in the engine with his arms and legs in the most peculiar position. I knew for a medical fact, that had I attempted that maneuver I’d sever my spine in 11 places, moments before pooping myself while speaking mandarin.

The Staff Sergeant in question issued another round of bellowing commands at the surrounding Marines, and his hysterical ramblings only intensified the confusion. Not one Marine seemed task-focused. The only accomplished activity I could identify was people multiplying in numbers, which is not the best answer given the circumstances.

Calming down during chaos

Our little group of cigar smokers gazed out into the turmoil. I compared the scene to a circus performance at the state fair. This was the show of shows. When you handed multiple acts of large animals, acrobats, and magicians to a crazed ring leader, you’re bound to intensify the confusion.

In our case, we supplied several military vehicles, personnel with combat gear, and a contortionist for a mechanic to a Marine staff sergeant whose head flames could start a California wildfire.

“Gunny, I’ll be the first sitting here to admit that I’d probably do the same thing he’s doing if I was in his shoes,” The staff sergeant said. “How could we handle this differently?”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said.

I pulled the last drag of smoke from my cigar before I stood up.

“Breathe.”

They waited for something else. I waited for the next question.

“After we’ve breathed, then what?” the staff sergeant asked, impatiently.

“You start with the first thing that comes to mind and move on from here.”

One of the things I never understood is how the answers to the most complex problems end up being the simplest. It’s never complicated, until we make it so.

I remembered my math teacher from High School would always say that question is easy when you know the answer, but seems hard when you’re searching for it. She would say it’s just as easy as when you didn’t know it, your searching is what made it difficult.

The circus performance wasn’t required, or necessary, but a common mistake made by leaders. When we don’t know what to do, our first instinct is to do everything at once, which in turn converts to accomplishing nothing at all.

The staff sergeant represented all of us in that position. Extinguishing a helmet fire is difficult for those around you, whether subordinate or superior, and it’s more challenging for the perpetrator. Can you see the top of your scalp without a mirror? Self-awareness is not a common response when in the midst of chaos.

It’s why that is the most important thing you must do as a leader. Take a moment to find your feet, plant them, and walk in a chosen direction. Give clear, concise, simplified direction, and spend the rest of your time putting out other people’s helmet fires.

“If there is anything I can say about the importance of a having a clear mind, it’s understanding the end-state,” I said. “Even an ugly win, is still a win, as long as you make that your goal.”

At the moment, I noticed something peculiar meddling about in our circus. A few unidentified characters may have more to teach us. I stopped. I watched. I waited.

Until then, I suggested that the staff sergeant sitting to my right attempt to extinguish the blazing glory of his counterpart across the lot. We had to get that blaze under control if we were to find our way out of this clusterf#$%@.

Semper Fidelis!!