Realigning Your Mental Map: Sadr City, 2008

July 3, 2014

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“A Map of the World”

In “Deep Survival,” author Laurence Gonzales describes how the brain assembles a “mental map” of the world based on spatial orientation, experience, emotion, cognition, and every other facet of who we are. This mental map is our unique perspective of the world. It’s our comfort zone; it’s what we rest on; it’s where we feel safe.

But there’s a problem in that our mental map doesn’t always align with “the real map,” i.e. the real world.

In his book, Gonzales relates numerous accounts in which people found themselves in survival situations and continued to cling to their old realities: the ones where they were still sitting safely in a plane at 30,000 feet or where a bear hadn’t just wrecked their campsite and left them stranded. The people in these accounts that died are the ones who failed to update their mental maps to their new situation.

The essential point is that sometimes there is a fate lying just around the corner that we have never, EVER considered, but that we will have to react to.

Sadr City

Six years ago, such a “new fate” arrived in Sadr City, Iraq. By March 2008, the urban enclave of 2 million people in northeastern Baghdad had quieted down to the point that just two companies of Stryker Infantry were needed to contain it. I was one of the officers assigned to those two companies at the time.  We had regular meetings with local leaders and enemy attacks were very low. Some might say that we had reached “steady-state operations,” and a routine of stability. We were in a comfort zone.

But as the saying goes, the enemy gets a vote, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s vote came at the end of March, when he unleashed an hourly barrage of rocket, mortar, IED, RPG, and gunfire attacks on the Green Zone and units in the area. In a matter of hours, the tactical situation in Sadr City shifted from low to high-intensity, with engagements akin to the Black Hawk Down depiction of Mogadishu in 1993. The digital map erupted red icons all over the city as our units tried to get a handle on the emerging situation. The enemy had achieved surprise and units were sustaining casualties.

This is not a complete narrative of the combat in Sadr City that year, but the situation does serve as a perfect example of one that requires leaders to reframe their mental maps to the new reality. Holding onto the prior impression of stability was pointless and risky. We needed a new plan, and fast.

The command deployed additional assets from surrounding areas and blocked the routes in/out of Sadr city, then platoons fought their way north to reclaim a key road. Where two companies once occupied, 14 companies now stood. The resulting month-long fight ultimately reduced the Sadr militia’s combat power, and a new 2.4 km wall across the city prevented them from attacking key coalition bases. From the Soldiers on the street to the Commanding General, the dramatic change in the tactical landscape demanded mental agility, measured emotional response, and poised leadership.

Bottom Line

The lesson is that leaders must be open-minded enough to sense a changing environment; they must willing to discard what is comfortable and accept the new reality; and they must then be decisive in the new environment, not the old. Leaders also need to accept that unseen “realities” exist—realities with momentum of their own, which will ultimately intersect with and affect the organization. Muqtada al-Sadr had likely been planning the April 2008 offensive for months. Intelligence efforts, of course, seek to discover these initiatives, but unforeseen developments will remain a common feature of combat. As such, it is vital that leaders live in a state of open-ended readiness to adjust and lead their organizations through periods of unanticipated change.


U.S. Army Major Andrew Steadman is a 14 year veteran of the Infantry, with four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of The Military Leadera leader development blog that offers resources and insight tailored for leaders of all professions who want to grow their teams.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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