Jan. 20 2023 08:50 AM

Lt. Col. Scott Mann: What will your ‘Pineapple Express’ will be?

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The power of storytelling came to life in the room full of farmers and agricultural industry professionals at the final session of the Dairy Business Association’s 2023 Dairy Strong conference's first day.

Attendees intently listened to Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired lieutenant colonel, former U.S. Army Green Beret and leadership expert, close the night. He detailed the heart-wrenching moment-by-moment events of the secret rescue mission of not only his dear friend and ally, Nezam but over 1,000 Afghans during America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“We are here to talk tonight about human connection,” Lt. Col. Mann said. “We live in a world of churn. People are distracted, disengaged and disconnected.”

A recent national survey shared that two-thirds of Americans do not trust their neighbors. That loss of trust can make it dangerous to lead through this churn; however, Lt. Col. Mann shared that through genuine human connections and vulnerability of sharing their struggle, leaders will gain the trust of their teammates. He refers to this as rooftop leadership.

The slogan of Green Berets is to “Free the oppressed.” Lt. Col. Mann spent nearly two decades working to build trust in small villages. Alongside his ‘A-Team’ of 12 other special forces in Afghanistan, he helped free people from harsh rule and authority. He shared tools he used to gain the trust of local villagers when leading through the churn.

Building on human connection

It starts with getting below the waterline of human nature. People only share 20% of what is happening in their lives. They have moved away from their natural abilities and made life more complicated, partly because technology has dramatically changed public behavior. Lt. Col. Mann thinks of this behavior as an acronym: MESSS.

“Humans are meaning-seeking, emotional, social, storytellers with struggles,” said Lt. Col. Mann.

Very few leaders discuss their purpose or ‘why’ with their teams. As a society, we’ve moved away from navigating through emotions. We are all social beings, wired to be connected, but today so many have become isolated. Yet, people have been telling stories for generations. Hearing and telling stories engages our brains in long-term memory, helping us connect and remember. Everyone struggles. When leaders are not afraid to open up about their struggles, it allows teams to relate to each other and share in the pain-creating space for trust to grow.

“There is power in human connection when times are hard,” said Lt. Col. Mann. “The greatest capital on this planet is social capital. When it comes to relationships, we build trust when risk is low and leverage it when risk is high.”

Be generous with your scars and leave your tracks

Storytelling is one of the most powerful communication tools. When people integrate struggle into shared stories, it opens the door to connection. Everyone struggles, but we become more relatable to others when we share our struggles. Lt. Col. Mann encouraged the group to be purposeful in using their struggle to help others.

Lt. Col. Mann is passionate about helping other veterans live through their daily struggles, find their voice and stand up on their own. He continues this through a non-profit he founded, The Heroes Journey. Not only has Lt. Col. Mann seen struggle on the battlefield, but tragedy hit home as he watched his father — his hero — fight stage four cancer for 10 years. Lt. Col. Mann spoke highly of his father and what he learned from his dad.

“No matter what you do with your life, you have to leave your tracks in this world,” Lt. Col. Mann said.

Every person can leave impressionable deeds that will serve other people. Using personal pain opens the opportunity to have a strong human connection. In these challenging times, leaders can build strong teams. Whatever we face in life, human connection is how we get through it together.

Operation Pineapple Express and rooftop leadership

Lt. Col. Mann pointed to his friend Nezam as a prime example of rooftop leadership. Nezam knew he could count on Lt. Col. Mann when he needed it most. Nezam was only 17 years old when he entered the Afghanistan national army and, within a year, became Special Forces. Nezam led from the front on all his patrols for 11 years, working alongside his team, including Lt. Col. Mann.

In 2021, Lt. Col. Mann and a group of volunteer veterans stepped in to lead a grassroots movement to help rescue Afghan nationals trapped in hazardous conditions as the country collapsed all around them.

“I am the Pineapple,” Nezam said to the soldiers guarding the Marine base, using a code word to ensure his protection. Nezam trusted Lt. Col. Mann with his life as he became the first passenger on what would become known as the ‘Pineapple Express.’ Lt. Col. Mann told Nezam to stay alive, and he would become Lt. Col. Mann’s neighbor in Florida. Nezam had complete faith in Lt. Col. Mann’s leadership and friendship.

He brought the talk full circle as he challenged people to identify their own Pineapple Express and answer the call to lead in difficult times.

“What I learned in life and death works in life and business,” Lt. Col. Mann said. “It turns out, as humans, we’re pretty similar.”