by Byron Connolly

Leadership lessons from a peacekeeper

Jul 28, 20147 mins
CareersGovernment ITIT Leadership

In 2005, Byron Bay born, Matina Jewell, was selected to represent Australia as a peacekeeper with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) on a Middle East mission.

A year later during the outbreak of war in Lebanon, Jewell was stationed at UN patrol base ‘Khiam’, situated just inside Southern Lebanon, the most dangerous of all UN bases in the Middle East at the time.

It was the toughest situation she had ever faced as a soldier.

“The 2006 Lebanon war was the most terrifying and challenging environment I’ve ever faced. This war really did test my skills and abilities unlike any situation I had faced previously,” Jewell told attendees.

Her team survived more than 50 near misses from bombs fired by Israeli fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks and their artillery fire, as well as Hezbollah (the Shi’a Islamist militant group) rockets being fired into Israel.

“There were at least half a dozen times where I really should have died during this war,” Jewell recalls.

Her luckiest escape occurred on the second night of the war when an Israeli 155mm artillery round exploded 15 metres in front of Jewell and one of her UN colleagues. It wasn’t until the next morning that the soldiers comprehended how close they came to being killed.

“The shell of the round split into three pieces on impact, which gives you an idea of how big these rounds are. A high explosive canister sits at the rear of these projectiles and that had caught on fire and was still smouldering the next morning.

“Had that canister detonated the way it’s designed to, it would have shattered that shell into over 2,000 of hot metal shrapnel, which would have been like 2,000 bullets flying out from that point of impact,” Jewell said.

“And given that was only 15 metres in front of me, it would most likely had been a fatal hit.”

But it was when Jewell was tasked to command a convoy of UN vehicles – two large armoured personnel carriers – and a crew of 16 soldiers, that she faced her toughest leadership challenge.

Jewell needed to get the convoy from Khiam to UN headquarters at the Lebanese port of Tyre, a two-hour trip under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, Israel had commenced its ground invasion into South Lebanon at the same time.

The Israelis were either using or bombing the roads Jewell’s convoy was using. This meant the convoy had to backtrack and find alternative roads to reach its destination.

The vehicles did not have GPS units, forcing Jewell to rely on maps, which only indicated roads that had been previously used by the UN. This made navigation extremely difficult.

The huge delay also meant that the convoy had exhausted the time it was allocated to by the UN and Israel to get to Tyre.

“I got into a situation where I had exhausted every road on my map and I still hadn’t managed to get to the city of Tyre let alone reach the UN compound,” Jewell said.

Thankfully Jewell had learnt to speak Arabic before being deployed on this mission. This meant she could meet with mayors in towns and villages in Syria and Lebanon.

“As a white women, I would never have been invited into the room let alone sit at the table alongside the men had it not been for that language skill. This made me a better operator on a day-to-day basis but more importantly, it also plays a significant role in saving my life during this war,” Jewell said.

She was able to get directions from a Lebanese police officer who told her to cut through a banana plantation along a dirt road that wasn’t marked on her map. Believe it or not, Jewell has a lesson here for business leaders.

“Out of that situation, it’s really important for us as leaders in business to be able to identify where we might face issues in our business, and equip ourselves with whatever skills are necessary to give ourselves the best chance of tackling those issues,” Jewell said.

Jewell’s convoy eventually arrived at the northern outskirts of Tyre but needed to get through to city to the relative safety of the UN compound. Unfortunately, Israel was preparing to conduct an airstrike on Tyre at that time.

“It was shaping up to be a tough day in the office for me at that point,” said Jewell.

“I am now having to make some really substantial decisions and the risks of those decisions I am making as the leader is very high. I was making decisions that weren’t only going to impact my life but the 16 people I was responsible for.”

The lesson here for business people is that if you have a critical process in your business, you not only need a plan but you need to practice and rehearse the plan before getting into a crisis situation, said Jewell.

“It sounds like common sense but sometimes things get overlooked until that heat of the moment when it’s far too late to run rehearsals,” Jewell said.

Despite the danger, Jewell decided to push on through the fighting to Tyre. Her vehicle was hit and she slammed forward into the bulletproof glass, breaking her back in five places and sustaining other internal injuries.

She spent two days lying on her back without pain relief on a tiled floor in the UN compound in Tyre. She was eventually transferred to a ship carrying 1,000 refugees and families of the peacekeeping force and receive much-needed morphine for the 20-hour trip to Cyprus.

It was there that she received the tragic news that her UN colleagues were killed on July 25 when an Israeli fighter jet fired a 1000-pound laser-guided bomb on the Khiam base.

The remains of the UN base in Khiam after the attack

Jewell was separated from the UN force and felt isolated. Compounding this isolation was the failure of UN commanders – including her Australian leader – to contact her about the deaths of her teammates.

“All the information I received was via the media and I think as a result of that lack of contact from my leaders, it took me many years to come to terms with the deaths of my team mates.”

This is a lesson for leaders of all types of business that during times of crisis, it is more important than ever to communicate with your people, said Jewell.

“Particularly if you want to get them through that crisis event and out the other side as a functioning and cohesive team that is capable of being able to move forward and continue operating effectively in the future.”

Matina Jewell has since won a long legal battle with the Australian government to receive the health cover she needed for treatment of her injuries as well as recognition for her war service.

She is now retired and lives in country Victoria with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She has also served on the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council, advising the government on defence and veteran issues.

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Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly