What I Learned About Leadership

Yes, I actually learned something about leadership.

In the military, especially as an officer, your contemporaries are constantly going on and on AND ON about leadership: the traits of good leaders, their habits, philosophies, priorities, favorite foods, musical tastes, preferred canine breeds, boxers or briefs, back-clasp vs hook-and-spin, etc. By the time you’re an old, bitchy officer like me who’s seen a lot of shit go down (literally), when somebody starts rapping about leadership, you hear, “Leadership is like a box of choc-oh-lates…,” and your eyes glaze over, and you start thinking hard about what you’re going to make for dinner tonight, and who Jon Snow’s real father could be.

Maybe that’s just me. In any case, nothing compares to learning something through actual experience, and my deployment gave me an opportunity to do just that. So here’s what I learned:

  • Be Yourself.

There’s this misperception that leaders have “personas” they assume for the sake of leading people, and that when they go home they’re totally different. By and large, this isn’t true. What you see is what you get. It’s one thing to rein in your impulses and take a more measured approach to situations than you normally would if not in a leadership position, knowing people above and below you are watching and judging; quite another to try to be a totally different person. The leaders who do try to adopt an alternate personality become neurotic.

So don’t try to embody Abe Lincoln or Richard Branson. You do you – unless you’re a raging asshole. Then please try to change.

  • Be consistent.

This goes hand-in-hand with “be yourself.” If you try to adopt an alternate leadership personality, maybe you’ll be able to keep it up for a year or two, but eventually it’ll start to slip. You’ll turn into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (hence the neuroticism), you’ll begin to hate your job, people will start to wonder what the hell your problem is, and their respect for you will suffer. Make your expectations clear, make it obvious what your subordinates can expect from you, and everyone will be happier.

  • Become a master at telling people things they don’t want to hear.

A leader has two primary jobs: 1) Getting their people promoted and/or giving them every opportunity to excel, and 2) Telling people things they don’t want to hear. Unless you’re naturally a sadistic jerk, the second job is very hard. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, especially if it’s related to a person’s character. Looking into somebody’s eyes and telling them that their bad attitude needs to change or they need to stop wearing hooker-clothes to work, without making them immediately defensive or getting into an argument, is a difficult and complicated tap dance that takes practice. If you can’t do this, then you can’t lead people.

Thanks to stories of Silicon Valley start-up wunderkids, lots of young-un’s in STEM professions think if they excel at the technical aspects of their job, they should become the leaders of their organization; experience is overrated. First, try sitting down with a guy you were friends with before you got promoted, and telling him the lewd jokes he makes around the office aren’t acceptable or conducive to a productive working environment, and need to stop immediately. And you know he won’t take it well. Good luck with that, wunderkid!

(And if you don’t think lewd jokes are a problem and wouldn’t do anything about it, then don’t be a leader, and now you know why Silicon Valley has a sexism problem.)

  • Be honest with yourself about what your work triggers are, and strategize how to mitigate them.

There’s this misconception that “triggers” are defined as totally innocuous things that send bleeding-heart liberals (usually females) into hysterics, which only safe spaces can prevent/cure. This connotation is sexist bullshit. Triggers are situations which evoke a disproportionate emotional response from a person. Everybody’s got them. For instance, maybe you’re an “arguer,” in that whenever somebody disagrees with you about something, you really want to argue about it to the point where things become heated and contentious. Or maybe you’re very religious, and whenever anybody mentions evolution or Darwin, even in passing, you immediately get defensive (I’m not calling out Christians – this is an example I’ve actually seen happen before. It got awkward fast.).

I’ll admit that my work trigger (as in a situation specific to work) is being disrespected. I can tolerate a lot of crap from a subordinate, as long as it seems to me like they’re trying to get better, aren’t hurting the mission, and treat myself and their coworkers with respect. But when they start getting lippy along the lines of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “I don’t care what you think,” “(SIGH) Whatever,” etc., I immediately want to disengage and fire the person on the spot, which could be an overreaction, depending on the situation.

It’s important to admit to yourself when you might overreact, and come up with a plan to temper your response before you find yourself freaking out or bringing the hammer down a little too hard and regretting it later.

  • Learn to work with what you’ve got.

Elite companies get to fire people for whatever (legal) reason suits them. If somebody’s annoying, or has a bad attitude, or is only marginally competent, or smells bad, Apple or Google can give them the boot without a second thought because they know there’s always someone else waiting in the wings, eager to take that job and not smell bad while doing it. Lower-tier companies, though, and especially the government, don’t have this luxury.

I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to council people during my deployment. It’s kinda ridiculous. There was one dude in particular I was itching to fire for his bad attitude (see above, re: disrespectful behavior).

“You can’t just fire people who you don’t get along with,” my boss said.

“Why not?” I demanded. “Other bosses get to fire people for being annoying jerks. Why can’t I?”

“Because if every leader did that, we would quickly run out of people,” he said.

And then it hit me – most leaders, even powerful ones, can’t just fire people who annoy them, because there is often literally no one else to do the job. If I had fired the guy (I ultimately didn’t fire him, and after a couple counseling sessions things improved greatly – so my boss was right), we wouldn’t have gotten a backfill for months, if ever. The question becomes: is having somebody doing the job better than nobody? Usually the answer is yes.

It’ll take a lot of work on your part to deal with and wring some use out of the problem children, but welcome to being a leader.

Not that you shouldn’t ever fire anyone; rather, you should have a specific set of criteria which are fire-able offenses, or “red lines,” if you will. In fact, you should write them down. The list should be short, and include things like: unethical/illegal behavior, complete and total incompetence, alienation of all coworkers to detriment of mission, etc. It should NOT include things like: smells bad, not good-looking, is annoying.

This is a great skill to have when working with the outside world, too. I figure President Trump is really wishing right now that he could pick up the phone, call Kim Jong-un or Assad, scream “You’re fired!” into the receiver, and be done with it. (Not that obnoxious subordinates are akin to genocidal dictators; the analogy is only to emphasize our inability to control other people) But no. Threats and bombings haven’t done much to force them to go away or change their behavior. Even if they did somehow disappear off the face of the earth, who would replace them? Would that be better than the current situation? What now?

Welcome to being a leader.

2 thoughts on “What I Learned About Leadership”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to share that … you put things very eloquently and … I just enjoy hearing your thoughts. Most def will be helpful in my future jobs.

    1. Hi Some guy!

      I hope you are a real person, because it would bring my heart joy if you were. Thanks for the feedback, and good luck with your future jobs!


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