Advice for the Starving Staff Artist

by John McRae

I once had a senior rater observe that life for staff officers like the ones assembled before him consisted of 80 percent making the railroad run – that is, doing the standard and recurring activities common to military staffs around the world. The other 20 percent, he mused, was for pushing things forward:  innovating, dreaming, adding one’s personal mark in new ways.

I think that for most staff officers this maxim is true. For some of the most fortunate among us, however, the ratio is reversed:  20 percent boilerplate activities, and 80 percent new and different. Whereas their 80/20 peers are more like “Conductors”, the 20/80 folks get to be “Artists.” Approached correctly, it is an exciting opportunity that can result in a highlight of one’s career.


Photo from NATO Rapid Reaction Corps – Italy Exercise Eagle Action, May 2005.

The Science of “Mission First, People Always”

Is there a more nebulous, often clichéd phrase in our military than “Mission First, People Always?” I’ve long-struggled with how to first logically explain the idea, but then turn the concept into a tangible leadership strategy.

And for military leaders whose job it is to expertly place people at grave risk to achieve the mission, at what point is it acceptable for the “People Always” part to fade away? Clearly a complicated topic.

Maybe the real proving ground of “Mission First, People Always” is the road to combat, not combat itself. It’s all the training and leadership interactions that go into making a unit lethal while maintaining the cohesion of its people (and families) along the way.

Mission First, People Always

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jonathan Baird, left, provides security during a vertical assault at Combat Town, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 10, 2014. Baird is a rifleman assigned to Echo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. U.S. Marine Corps. Photo by Lance Cpl. Richard Currier. Link to photo.

Sleep that Sabotages Leadership

Today’s HBR recommendation, “Your Abusive Boss Is Probably an Insomniac,” is a summary of findings from a study published in the Academy of Management Journal. The researchers studied 88 leaders and their teams to find out if the leaders’ sleep habits affected performance at work. The result?…you guessed it, but there’s a twist:

We found that daily leader sleep quality, but not quantity, influenced the leader’s self-control and abusive supervision behavior, and ultimately the degree to which his or her subordinates were engaged in their work that day. It is not clear why sleep quantity did not have the effect we predicted, but the effect for sleep quality was very clear; a given leader engaged in more jerky boss behavior after a poor night of sleep than a good night of sleep, and this influenced his or her subordinates to disengage from work.


Photo by Odi Mitch. Link to photo.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#12)

 Because I wield power over others,
I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.

Robert Sutton closes out “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” by citing what I think is the most often overlooked (and potentially the most destructive) aspect of leadership on this list. It is the idea that the very position of influence blinds the leader from truly realizing how his actions impact subordinates.

When you think about it, there is nothing more elemental in human interaction – to understand how we affect other people – but this awareness is often hidden even from those who base their professions on influencing others.


Army Reserve Soldiers and competitors listen to a class on rifle marksmanship before the inaugural Army Reserve Small Arms Championship hosted at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Sept. 22. Approximately 70 Soldiers, making up 14 teams, came from all over the country to compete. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)

Why Curiosity Matters

I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that the best leaders are always moving forward. They don’t stagnate, are curious about themselves and their environment, and continually break new ground. They advance their talents intellectually, physically, emotionally, professionally, and so on.

When you think about it, curiosity is required before one can improve at all…it is a prerequisite for growth.

The Harvard Business Review article “Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence” highlights the idea of a Curiosity Quotient, much like the commonly known psychological capabilities of Intellectual Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ). The Curiosity Quotient (CQ) is one’s affinity to be “inquisitive and open to new experiences” and, similar to IQ and EQ, improves one’s ability to navigate complex environments.


Soldiers at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, trying to get books from the Service Club Library. Miss Maurine Doores is the librarian.  January 22, 1942. Signal Corps Photo #162-42-79 by Weber, 162nd Signal Photographic Company.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#11)

Simplicity resonates from #11 of Robert Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe.” This belief is so basic that it is often overlooked and rarely discussed, but might very well be the belief that distinguishes great leaders from the rest.

Sutton’s #11 belief of good bosses is:

How I do things is as important as what I do.


Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, center left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, at Besmaya Range Complex in Iraq, April 21, 2016. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#10)

Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to
eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.

In my first few weeks as a company commander, I noticed that directly across the hall worked a consistently loud mid-level leader. He made a point to interrupt and talk over everyone around him who was either junior in rank or wasn’t annoyed enough to walk away.

As his leader, though, what concerned me was that his talk was also constantly negative. He seemed to be incapable of agreeing with or encouraging a positive thought by those around him. It was an emotional drain to listen to and I’m sure it was exasperating for the Soldiers working for him.

#10 on Robert Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” zeros-in on negative interactions and caustic team members because they can quickly overwrite the positive that exists within an organization. Being a nice leader and encouraging others is not enough, Sutton explains in his Harvard Business Review blog post on the topic:

Eliminating the negative, as any skilled leader can tell you, is not just the flipside of accentuating the positive. It’s a whole different set of activities. For someone with people to manage, accentuating the positive means recognizing productive and constructive effort, for example, and helping people discover and build on their strengths. Eliminating the negative, for the same boss, might mean tearing down maddening obstacles and shielding people from abuse.

Some might say that the climate of authority and bravado in military units makes positivity “uncool.” Success in the military, like anything else, “rises and falls on leadership” (John Maxwell). Sutton’s point is that actively developing a positive climate is less important than removing the negative people and interactions. Sutton draws an analogy to marriage:

Negative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones. In the context of romantic relationships and marriages, for example, the truth is stark:  unless positive interactions outnumber negative interactions by five to one, odds are that the relationship will fail.

In the instance of my former subordinate, it was clear to me that his corrosive attitude was exactly opposite of the command climate my First Sergeant and I were trying to build. One day after a particularly cynical monologue, I engaged him with an ultimatum…cut out the negativity or I’d pull him out of the position, period. He adjusted his attitude.

Here are a few tips for action:

  • Lead with positivity and publicly reward such behavior in your team.
  • Words matter. Pay close attention to how you discuss problems and difficult people. Your attitude will propagate through the organization.
  • Frame conflict in the context of growth, always placing the outcome and the learning process higher than the friction that caused it.
  • Establish no tolerance for caustic, negative people (Robert Sutton’s book on this topic is called The No Asshole Rule)
  • Go on the hunt for negative people. Roam around the building, get conversational with people, and investigate rumors of negative behavior.
  • Use Baird CEO Paul Purcell’s approach to clarify your stance on negativity:  “If I discover that you’re an asshole, I’m going to fire you.”

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12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#9)

Sutton’s #9 from 12 Things Good Bosses Believe has significant, daily application for the military leader. You definitely need to read his expanded blog post on #9, which provides details on how successful companies become more effective at cultivating the right ideas. Here is #9:

“Innovation is crucial to every team and organization.
So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas.
But it is also my job to help them kill off
all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.”