When I was in high school and the service academy, I did what many aspiring military leaders do. I studied famous generals from history and extracted the lessons that I wanted to live and lead by. I compiled quotes from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon…Washington, Marshall, and Powell.
And of course, Patton. I had pages of Patton quotes. There was the “pint of sweat and gallon of blood” quote, the “good plan executed now” dictum, and “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” But here’s the quote that stuck with me the most:
“You are always on parade.”
I referenced it almost daily as a clear reminder that example is everything in leadership. [I even wrote about it in You Are Being Watched.] But now, 20 years later, I think Patton’s analogy has a serious flaw.
George Patton, c. 1919.
The civilian world doesn’t experience this phenomenon, but there’s a form of gazing in the military that’s not considered sexual harassment. It’s the uniform once-over that occurs when service members are introduced for the first time.
You’ve seen it…we trade lengthy, indiscreet, almost uncomfortable stares at each others upper torso and arms to interpret the story told by one another’s rank, badges, medals, decorations, tabs, and patches. We do it because we want to know who we’re dealing with, what the other person is bringing to the table. (And if we’re being honest, we should go ahead and admit that it’s also an ego check: “Have I been through more than this guy? How much do I need to regard him?”)
to photo on Wikipedia.
Think back on your recent interactions. If I asked you how many times you made destructive comments towards the people you work with, how would you answer? “Destructive? No way. I’m a nice person. And when I do give feedback, it’s never destructive.” What about if I asked you how many times you talked negatively about someone when he or she wasn’t present? “Well sure, but everyone does that. It’s part of our culture.”
The topic we are approaching here is a silent leadership killer. Who’s leadership, you ask? Yours, your boss’s, your subordinates’. Destructive comments slip into an organization, infect the culture, manifest as other problems, and kill the trust that leaders worked so hard to build.
Today, you’ll be guilty of making comments that can destroy your organization, and you likely don’t even know it.
Command Sgt. Maj. Alan D. Bjerke, command sergeant major of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, speaks to Canadian Soldiers during practice for a live fire event during Cooperative Spirit 2008 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center near Hohenfels, Germany. Link
As a follow-up to Part 1 in the Habit Series from Marshall Goldsmith’s “Twenty Habits that Hold You Back from the Top,” let’s take a look at why military leaders are routinely addicted to winning, which turns out to be both helpful and potentially destructive.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron takes off for a sortie at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 15, 2014, during Red Flag-Alaska 15-1. (Link
to DoD photo by Senior Airman Peter Reft, U.S. Air Force/Released)
Have you ever browsed the bargain section of Barnes & Noble and been automatically skeptical about the quality of the books? “This looks interesting…but why is it so cheap?” Because the only thing worse than being slightly dissatisfied with a full-priced book, is being fully dissatisfied with a discounted one you got tricked into buying. Right? So, I spend some time investigating a bargain book before I buy it.
That’s what happened with What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by leadership coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith. This book that I was skeptical about turned out to be a wealth of applicable insights on leader behavior, team building, and interpersonal influence.
One section of the book should be mandatory reading for every leader, especially we military leaders who have command authority to “fall back on” when personal leadership talent falters. It’s called “The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top.” Reading this section is like getting the results of a 360° peer feedback process without having to take the survey…eye-opening and humbling.
What I will do for this new series of blog posts is highlight a habit or two and apply them to the unique leadership environment we face in the military, giving examples and recommendations along the way. I encourage your participation in the Comments section, as I am certain that other leaders have experienced these habits and have useful insight to share.
That said, the first workplace habit that is holding back military leaders is…winning too much.
Sapper competitors complete the rope climbing portion of the obstacle course before sprinting to the finish line. The Best Sapper Competition gives engineers throughout the Army the opportunity to compete in a grueling six phase and three-day competition to determine who are the best engineers in the Army. DoD photo by Benjamin Faske. Link
Listening to Michael Hyatt’s superb podcast on creating team unity, my first reaction was, “We’re good! The military has got this team alignment thing figured out. We’re focused on the mission, we have a clear command structure, and we follow orders.” But as Michael explained the steps to creating team alignment, he said that to get the most powerful results, leaders must:
Create an environment that is safe for dissent.
Ouch! Ok, that’s not the first phrase most military members would use to describe their work environment. In fact, I think it’s rare that I’ve seen a military leader who embraces dissent in the name of creating unity. I know I’ve never prioritized it.
The result?…we get a team full of Yes Men who not only fail to speak up when they disagree with mundane issues, but are also trained to remain quiet in the face of critical decisions. If you want a team of folks like that, then make sure you do these things.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Caroline Chavez, a senior drill instructor assigned to Platoon 4023, November Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, commands her platoon during their final drill evaluation, June 25, 2014, at Parris Island, S.C.
(DoD photo by Cpl. Octavia Davis, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
“Never let your ego get so close to your position,
so that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”
– General Colin Powell
The other valuable lesson to find in General Powell’s statement is how ego should relate to future jobs and career goals we seek.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to compete for a highly-competitive position on a team that holds unmatched regard in the military. It was the kind of job that, if chosen, would give me instant credibility and esteem in my professional community.
As you might imagine, this opportunity draws the most motivated and talented Soldiers from across the military. Unfortunately for most, the opportunity is also highly and dispassionately selective. Incredibly capable Soldiers prepare for years, only to find out they don’t meet the narrow bandwidth of acceptable talent and are sent home.
Which is what happened to me. During the process, however, I saw peers become obsessed with being selected, making it the ultimate validation of their military career…the definitive stamp of individual self-worth and achievement. They clearly aligned their egos with the position…and many took an emotional hit when they weren’t accepted.
Powell’s advice is clear wisdom for those seeking competitive career goals. It’s wise to remain stoic about the outcome, particularly if the goal is highly-selective. Becoming psychologically-tied to a career outcome can easily cause one to:
- Miss other opportunities during the process.
- Make poor decisions because of the emotional investment and fear of failure.
- Fail to see the positive aspects of the resulting situation.
- Set a poor example for peers and subordinates who are striving for their own goals.
- Place an emotional toll on peers and family who will provide support in any outcome.
No organization, job title, or status can invalidate the commitment, talent, and influence one achieves during an entire career. Separate who you are from what you do and be selective about where you place your self-worth.
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