Eyal Yardenay, the old terminal building, and the control tower in Entebbe (photo credit IDF)

Commando Culture #3 — Total Ownership, aka “Big Head”​ — Part 1

A 3rd post in the series. The previous ones are:
Lead by example (https://tinyurl.com/CommandoCulture1),
Smile to Change (https://tinyurl.com/CommandoCulture2).

July 4th, 1976 clear and quiet summer night, four Israeli C130s with elite special forces units on board are about to land at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, Africa, over 3800km from Israel.

A week earlier, Air-France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists after a stop in Athens. The terrorists forced the pilots to land in Entebbe, then they separated the Israeli and visibly Jewish hostages, locked them in the old terminal building, and released all of the other passengers. The French captain and his crew insisted on staying with the hostages. After a week the terrorists threatened to start executing the hostages, women and children included. Operation Thunderbolt, a daring rescue mission far from home, was a go.

The 4 IAF C130 Hercules planes with the commando teams on board landed in Entebbe with their bay doors already open. Every second counts, the element of surprise is crucial. A black Mercedes and 2 Landrover jeeps got off the planes and headed to the old terminal building.

Major (Ret.) Eyal Yardenay was the driver of the first jeep. Just before leaving the base in Israel he decided to take an RPG launcher with him, because “he had a spare room next to him in the jeep, and maybe it will come in handy”, no one asked him to do so, and him having or using an RPG was not part of the plan. It was a “big head” kind of action.

As they got closer to the terminal, the convoy was stopped by 2 local soldiers. They had to shoot them to reach the terminal. After shooting them with silenced handguns did not do the trick, they were shot by an unsuppressed AK47 from the Mercedes and by MAG from the 2nd jeep. It was loud, it alerted the locals. So much for a silent surprise assault. The fighting started. Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the commander of the mission (and the brother of the current Israeli PM), didn’t wait for the convoy to reach the planned stopping point. He was running at the head of his team to the old terminal, where the hostages were held. There were less than 25 meters to the building. The assault team started taking heavy fire from the control tower. Yoni was shot and suffered fatal wounds. Muki Betzer took the team’s lead and stormed into the building. Few minutes later all 7 terrorists were dead.

All this time, the fire fight with the control tower continued, there was no way to get the hostages out. Eyal did not hesitate, he took the RPG (he happened to bring along), ran a short distance to the side to get a better shot and fired right into the control tower. A direct hit, big explosion, and the shooting from the tower stopped, clearing the way for the hostages to get out.

All the hostages were loaded on the C130s and the planes took off. En route to Israel the news about the operation broke out. Eyal recalls the tension on the flight, all were concerned that the enemy countries on both sides of the Red Sea might send jets to intercept them. The C130s dropped low to fly below the radar, the pilots, and the others in the cockpit, were scanning the sky nervously for enemy jets.

All of a sudden the captain said “fighter jets ahead”, everyone lost a heartbeat. Few nerve wracking moments later, the radio came to life, calling in Hebrew “we came to get you home safely”. 2 IAF’s F4 Phantoms closed in and positioned on both sides of the C130s.

Eyal said this was one of the most beautiful sights in his life.

Eyal is the father of Ron, a good friend and a fellow officer in my special forces division. I had the pleasure of hearing all the details directly from Eyal, 44 years after the heroic operation. As Eyal says, “big head” is a state of mind, for example, he told me that he memorized an evacuation route for the vehicles from Uganda to Kenya, in case they had to leave on land, although nobody asked him to do so. This is total ownership! Taking total ownership, or as it is called in Israel, “Big head”, can really save the day especially when the reality deviates from the plan.

In the IDF young soldiers are taught right from the start to demonstrate “big head”, ie to take responsibility, understand the bigger picture, care about whatever is going on, and fix problems, even if they are not directly their problems, or not their direct responsibility.

This attitude is very powerful when there are unexpected issues to deal with on any scale (from startup problems to disasters on national scale). Process, procedures and responsibilities need to be added in order to scale, but at any size organization, and esp. In startups, “big-head” total ownership is always useful. Having a company mindset that encourages taking ownership and making sure issues are handled even if they are not your direct responsibility is very powerful in any startup. In the 2nd part of this post I will relate to some specific examples I encountered.

I would like to thank Eyal again for our conversation, besides being a farmer, he gives amazing lectures about leadership, you can reach him via Ron: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ron-yardenay-4177a351/

Entrepreneur, tech. investor