Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Save the drama for your momma

OK, as promised, another post on leadership. This will apply specifically to the Army, but I have found that the military leadership model works in almost every situation.

As the title suggests, we're talking about drama today. Specifically, how becoming (a little) emotionally involved is a good thing, but too much leads to lack of communication, unclear guidance, poor morale and no buy-in to the mission on the part of your subordinate leaders.

Let me first begin by saying that the army (and most other environments that require leadership) is a world of facts and truth. Facts and truth put limits on the fluid situations in which we find ourselves. For the army, these facts and truth take the form of doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and a continuous flow of information.

Doctrine is made up of Field Manuals (FMs), Technical Manuals (TMs), Army Regulations (ARs) and other Department of Defense publications. TTPs are just that: tactics, techniques, and procedures that may not be written in the army's doctrinal publications but are nonetheless commonly used and are written down in the form of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). These run the gamut from "use of static IP addresses is mandatory for all computers on this network" to "the second man in the stack will be the breach man and will use a shotgun to shoot out the lock."

Information (as I will define it) is data that has been subjected to analysis. It contains what I like to call the "so-what factor." As in, "Sir, the garbage truck ran over a cable." "So what?" "So now no one has internet." Information is usable in making decisions, while data is not.

So now we've defined terms, and we've taken a fluid environment and limited it with doctrine, TTPs, and information. Note that there is no emotion associated with this process- it is what it is. And this applies to every situation we can imagine in the military, whether on an infantry patrol in Baghdad or (for example) sitting on a base camp in Kuwait to launching a space shuttle or even going on leave. When we can objectively look at the situation, apply our knowledge of doctrine and what we've determined to be effective TTPs, and augment that with information, we can decide what to do and communicate that plan to our subordinates.

Generally, that last step is where we get into trouble (emotionally). I am a communicator by trade, and one thing communicators despise is interference. And a lot of times, our emotions act as interference. Someone who is so angry they can't speak has already lost the ability to communicate. And you've all seen the people who get so choked up (with happiness, sadness, whatever), who've "promised themselves they wouldn't do this [sob]" that they basically disintegrate. They may have had something interesting and relevant to say- who knows? Not you, and not me. And this is a serious problem in military leadership. You can be the meanest, nastiest, foulest talking NCO or officer, but if you let that get in the way of communicating your plan or intent to your subordinates, well, you're screwed. They won't understand, they won't listen (after all, you're just yelling, and we learn in basic training how to tune that out), and your mission (which is derived from a higher headquarters mission) won't get done.

You also won't be able to guide, teach, coach, or mentor effectively. Soldiers (a lot of the time) are like kids. You have to be consistent, you have to be calm, and you have to use short words that they understand. Just kidding on that last part. But you do have to be able to couch your thoughts in terms that someone without your experience or intimate knowledge of the systems involved will understand. And when you get mad or get abusive you can't do that.

I know of a situation where a leader got exceptionally cheesed off at a (very junior) subordinate leader. This junior leader, the LT, sent up a report with erroneous information in it. This made the senior leader, the Man, look foolish. The Man took this personally, and took it out on the LT. He spewed vitriol for a while, and then proceeded to hold a grudge. Now, any time the LT makes a tiny mistake, the Man gets angry and punishes the LT. Punishes, not disciplines. Not teaches, not coaches, not mentors, nothing like that. Just abuse. And it's not consistent- the other junior leaders make the same mistakes as the LT and the Man just blows them off. "No big deal, don't do it again." So now the LT has been ruined for military service. He won't listen, he refuses to believe that he's not being victimized, and frankly, he's right. He also won't work because he's scared to screw up, and so now the unit is down one Soldier. He's only taking up space.

Leaders in that kind of situation don't get any guidance. It's hard to teach or guide someone effectively if the only guidance or direction you give is "If you screw this up I will stab you in your ear." And then you've got someone who is not only scared to screw up, he doesn't even know how to avoid it. Your Soldiers see this, too. If you don't get clear guidance, you can't give clear guidance. Then you've got a unit full of Soldiers who don't know what they're doing, why they're doing it, what it means in the grand context of the overall mission, and they're scared to screw up, because they're scared of being punished severely as a knee-jerk emotional reaction.

Also, all the Soldiers around that LT have lost all their respect for the Man. His abuse, his uniformly negative emotional involvement, has crippled his ability to lead. And he's ruining the morale for the rest of the Soldiers. I have found (in eleven years of leading Soldiers) that happy Soldiers will do the most disgusting, miserable tasks they're told to do, and they won't hate you at the end of the day. It doesn't take too much to make Soldiers happy, either- just talk to them, ask them what's up, shake hands, and mean it. And show a willingness to work and learn from them- you don't have a monopoly on good ideas. That being said, even if you do all that, if you show yourself to be a person who is constantly reacting emotionally (and negatively) to changes in a situation which you already know is fluid, you will kill that morale. You will turn Soldiers who were happy and were willing to do terrible, arduous tasks for you into people who resent you, who are angry at you, and who have guns (think about that).

All of which brings us around to mission buy-in. This is where each Soldier understands his role in the mission, knows what his particular job brings to the table and is willing to contribute his skills to the unit in order to make the unit successful. When you as a leader are negatively emotionally involved, it stops being about the mission and starts being about you. You become the mission. Your Soldiers will spend their time wondering how to keep you away from them, out of the office, happy and calm, and they'll stop worrying about the mission and what they are actually deployed to do. No one will care that they have a particular needed skill-set, they will only care that it's time to get off shift and away from you.

So how do you keep all this from happening? Here are some tips.
- Remember, IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU! It's about the MISSION. Whatever you were hired to do, sent in to accomplish, whatever that is, that's the overriding factor. Your ego, your emotions, have nothing to do with it. If you want to get a good evaluation, you should worry about getting the mission accomplished. The rest takes care of itself.
- Likewise, when your subordinates screw up, they're not doing it TO you, they're just screwing up. Stop making it about punishment, and make it about consequences. "If you do this, then this happens." No emotion. It's just a fact.
- And if you don't want them to screw up, SHOW THEM WHAT RIGHT LOOKS LIKE. Don't just throw out random facts and null statements. Take the time to teach, coach, and mentor your subordinates. This way, when you have to yell, it's meaningful and effective.
- LEARN YOUR LIMITS- learn what defines and limits the fluidity of the situation. If you don't know what you're supposed to do, if you haven't studied the applicable FMs, TMs, ARs, if you haven't read up on the TTPs, and if you don't have information (versus data), you can't define your situation. You can't contain the chaos around you, and you are not going to be effective.

OK, that's all. More later, on another topic. I relish your feedback. Please write back


La Yen said...

This was really good. You should submit this to someone. Army Times? Monitor? Maybe just print it and slide it under someone's door?

And if I shake your hand and ask what's up will you scrub behind the refrigerator?

I love you

Anonymous said...

Waldo - both of your posts have been brilliant. I have been trying to teach a few people in my offices exactly this. You are correct - you use this same tactic on kids, they respond well to it. I agree with Jennifer, you should submit this somewhere....this is hard to explain and harder to teach, you either get it or you don't. Your ability to put into words something SO VERY IMPORTANT....is extraordinary. Just think if more parents got this.....and more importantly, DID this. I think about you often and love your insight. I know things are not the best of circumstances but, I am glad everyday you are safe. I look forward to more posts I can plagiarize.

P. S. Do you ever watch the Dog Whisperer?? His tactics work on kids too.


Fig said...

I imagine you don't relish my feedback, seeing as how you don't know me and I don't know jack about the army BUT . . . I like that I'm starting to learn some jack. Your writing is interesting and you are smart. Keep up the good work (I'm resisting the urge to end that with "soldier"). Ha ha.

Waldo said...

JJJ- I am actually trying to submit some other more technical writing to the signal corps magazine, but I will look at getting this published somewhere.

Fig- Thanks for the feedback. I DO relish it, particularly from someone who, as you say, doesn't know jack about what I do. It's gratifying to hear that things that I consider universal principles actually apply universally (see that? One comment, and you represent a statistical universe). Keep 'em coming.