Leadership and the ability to push through tough times can be trained for and can be learned, according to former Army Ranger Keni Thomas, who delivered the keynote address to members at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) annual meeting last week in Des Moines.

Thomas was part of a U.S. military mission in Somalia in 1993 that was later recounted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” During an operation to capture militants in the capital city of Mogadishu, enemy fire brought down two Black Hawk helicopters, while rescue vehicles on the ground were prevented from reaching survivors do to roadblocks and attacks.

Thomas and his men were part of an 18-hour fight for survival that utilized all the skills they had learned through their military training. He survived, he said, because of that training and the commitment each member of the team made to all the others. 

“We were all only fighting for each other,” he said. “All we cared about was getting each other home.”

Thomas applied these leadership principles to running a farming operation that, inevitably, comes with its own challenging times. 

He specifically referenced is­sues of input and equipment shortages and costs, along with the seasonal struggle to control pest and weed pressure.

Who you are fighting for

He suggested each person, when preparing or training for adversity, needs to know who in their life they are fighting for — be it family, coworkers or self. For Thomas, he was fighting for the other members of his team.

Thomas was second in command of his squad. Early in the mission, the team leader was wounded and evacuated, leaving Thomas in charge.

“I was prepared because of the training. I didn’t need to be told what to do,” he said. “If you’re not ready when they say go, then you’ve already failed.”

Thomas said he spent a long time believing leadership meant being better than everyone else at all aspects of the mission. He thought if he could run faster, shoot better and train harder than anyone else, the rest of the team would simply learn. 

Working as a team

Ultimately, this strategy failed him. What he came to understand is the value of bringing everyone on a team up to his level, emphasizing their strengths or allowing them the time and training to exceed in an assigned task.

“The only reason I’m still around today is because of the guys on my team,” Thomas said.

Because each member of the team was prepared, trained well and was completely focused on getting each other out alive, they succeeded in that mission.

“We had to take care of each other, get ourselves out of the situation because there was not a rescue mission coming,” he said. 

Thomas encouraged Farm Bureau members to take the same approach to hard times on the farm. He said farmers should trust the team they’ve built, train for trouble and trust that they have the ability to make it through.

The last tip he offered was to remember to breathe. 

“Sometimes when you’re running for your life, the best thing you can do is slow down,” Thomas said.

He noted that when panic sets in, mistakes are more common. He suggested when faced with extreme stress, take a couple deep breaths to slow down your biological stress response, which will allow you to think and see more clearly.

“I don’t know all the enemies you’re up against, but I know they’re coming for you,” Thomas said. “Remember, these are just obstacles, barriers from you completing your mission. You will be able to push through them. You’ll find a way.”