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The Greatest Lesson Parenting Taught Me About Leadership (Part 2)

By January 28, 2020January 30th, 2020No Comments

Sometimes you can be right and have influence.

Often, as described in Part 1, having maximum influence means compromise and achieving consensus. Sometimes, however, the situation demands that you stand on principle and fight for what you believe is right. Your beliefs and your values are what guide and sustain you during these conflicts. 

[Hurricane Matthew approaching Haiti just prior to making landfall]

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew was a Category 5 storm that made landfall along the far western tip of Haiti on 4 October, 2016. The destruction along the eye of the storm’s path completely devastated everything, both natural and human-made. It was worse than anything I had seen during the war in Kandahar. 

[A devastated seaside community. Approximately 90% of the structures in many small coastal villages were completely destroyed]

The Haitian Government 

The Haitian Government, the United Nations Mission, and many non-governmental aid agencies were in full crisis-management mode. There were over 500 dead with bodies floating in the ocean. Entire villages were wiped out. Many areas were cut off by flooding and washed out roads. 

The Haitian Government, still recovering from the devastating earthquake in 2010, was unable to effectively respond. Fortunately the United Nations still had significant resources to assist. We responded with military engineers to clear the roads and reestablish ground lines of communication, the provision of humanitarian aid and food, medical support, and security to protect aid convoys and warehouses from looting. 

The efforts that we took alongside brave humanitarian agencies and NGOs saved many lives and helped restore order. However, I believe that we could have done more. I believe that the UN’s severely bureaucratic decision-making processes and extreme risk aversion prevented us from maximizing our relief operations. The utilization of military cargo helicopters is the prime example. 

In the UN, cargo helicopters (even military ones) are controlled by the civilian logistics staff. For normal operations (i.e not in crisis) UN helicopters can only land in designated and registered landing zones. This requires a ground reconnaissance team to certify that the landing zone is free of hazards. Although military helicopter crews are trained to identify risks and take the necessary precautions when landing in unfamiliar areas, this restriction was in place to further ensure safety and reduce risk. 

While I did not agree with the regulations during normal operations it was not something that I believed was worth fighting. It was when we refused to change our procedures to save lives during a crisis that I became aggressively vocal.

The bureaucratic logic went something like this: 

Helicopters could only land at designated landing sites. Due to the hurricane, we needed to land in other parts of the country, places where the need was greatest. The need was often greatest in these locations because the roads were washed out. But we would not land there because we could not conduct a ground reconnaissance. In extreme circumstances helicopters could be authorized to land in places without a previous reconnaissance if approved by the Chief of Mission Support, if only that person would assume the risk—and they would not. 

An Inflexible Risk Management Model 

I believe this refusal to adapt was due to an inflexible risk management model that is blind to context and manned by UN bureaucrats who are not motivated or incentivized to take on risk or manage risk in any form (operational or financial). I don’t understand this risk aversion and as result find it very hard to empathize with those who do not act boldly when the situation dictates. 

Ironically, as I was boarding a helicopter flight from Port-au-Prince to the devastated areas, I told the Special Representative (the most senior UN leader in Haiti) that because of this debacle that I was extremely embarrassed to be part of the United Nations. It was not the first time on a deployed operation that I intimated that if my boss did not want my advice then they should fire me. Call it truth to power, radical candour, or a fierce conversation. In each case I think my bosses came to “appreciate” my candour, although no doubt I could have had more sophistication in my delivery. I have come to realize that standing on principle does not always need to be a public fight or showdown. How you approach it will often determine how much influence you have in future interactions with the other players. 

In the end we did not change our procedures and we did not land our UN helicopters where the need was greatest. On the ground, at that moment, I was ultimately unable to influence what I would have considered a positive outcome. Furthermore, I do not believe that any lessons were learned from these events as nothing in the UN has changed as it pertains to the use of cargo helicopters. When dealing with sub-optimal cards there is often no ideal solution and you do the best with the hand you’ve been dealt. 

While the UN refused to learn from that experience, I am confident that the Canadian Armed Forces did. My end of tour report very clearly recommended that Canada never deploy cargo helicopters as part of a UN mission or, if they do, that a great degree of national control be maintained. When Canada deployed Chinook helicopters to the war zone in Mali as part of the UN mission, we ensured that our national caveats could override the civilian logistics staff and deploy casualty evacuation flights without their non-forthcoming authorization. Standing on principle can be painful and costly, however the rewards, while sometimes delayed, are worth it. 

Being right does not necessarily make you right and yet sometimes, based on your core beliefs and values, you need to draw a line that you will not cross. 

How firm are your beliefs and values? Do you know which lines you will not cross?

About the Author

In 2016, then Colonel Mark Gasparotto deployed to Haiti with two roles as the Chief of Staff for the United Nations Military Component and as the Canadian Military Contingent Commander. By the end of his one-year tour of duty he was also the Deputy Force Commander. Mark received his second Meritorious Service Medal and the Brazilian Army Medal for his senior leadership roles.

Retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2017 at the rank of Colonel, Mark is now the President of the Gasparotto Group, a leadership development firm that helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.


The Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams. 

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