Never lose sight of the big picture

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Mendoza
  • 18th Civil Engineer Squadron
During the summer of 2006, I was deployed to Baghdad serving with the Army Corps of Engineers when I learned one of the most important leadership lessons of my life.

Of course, I've learned a lot of lessons over the years, but this one was one of those "eye-opening" moments that I will never forget. I learned to never lose sight of the big picture.

My unit employed about 40-50 Iraqi contract engineers to support the reconstruction effort. We were all deeply engaged and involved in the effort to rebuild the country. Of course, there were inherent dangers in being there, but these dangers were far greater for our Iraqi engineers. They lived in the neighborhoods and suburbs of Baghdad and risked a lot just to come to work every day for the Americans. On top of that, if you were a female Iraqi engineer, the danger was compounded.

One morning in late August 2006, one of my Iraqi engineers, a woman I'll call Hana, showed up to work a bit shaken and proceeded to tell me of an ordeal that she had just gone through. She routinely received threats and harassment, but on this day it was different. She told me that she had just received another death threat, but this time with guns pointed at her.

Hana was walking to work when she passed a couple of Iraqi "military dressed" personnel. She didn't believe that they were real Iraqi Army or police personnel but only dressed to look like them. They threatened her because she wasn't wearing a hijab, which is traditional clothing attire worn by many Muslim women to cover themselves. Although she was Muslim, Hana chose to wear western style clothes with her face and hair exposed and not covered with a hijab unlike many of her friends.

When she told me about the incident, I asked her to document what happened. It was then in my effort to try and help her that I forgot the bigger picture of why I was in Iraq. I told her that for her protection maybe she should consider wearing the hijab.

I had good intentions...I didn't want anything to happen to her. I was thinking of her safety. Yet, what I remember most at that point, was the look on her face after I said that. It was a look of utter disappointment and dismay. She couldn't believe I had just said that. She replied, "But sir...," and then looked me in the eye and uttered the two most profound words that immediately clarified my purpose. She said, "I'm free."

All the time I was in Baghdad, I knew my mission well: rebuild Iraq...roads, infrastructure, facilities, and so on. I knew the goals my leadership had set for me and in turn the objectives I set for my team. But the fact is I had lost focus on why we were there in the first place. I needed to reinforce her courage and conviction to help her through this dangerous ordeal without sacrificing her principles and purpose.

Good leaders typically have no problem conveying the mission, vision, and priorities to subordinates. But sometimes, we can lose sight of the bigger picture--the reason why we do what we do, the principles that guide us, and our sense of purpose that motivates and inspires us.

Purpose gives us a cause for doing what we do and it creates a calling which defines who we are. It strengthens a leader's vision and direction as well as reinforces strategic goals. When we lose sight of our purpose, we lose sight of the big picture.

Hana never wore the hijab, and in a free Iraq, that was her choice. I helped her find other ways to get to work so she never compromised her sense of freedom. I was truly inspired by her courage and attitude to make a difference for her essence she became my purpose.