Going Native: a Leader’s Curse

By | December 5, 2018

[December 5, 2018]  About a year after the U.S. invasion of Panama, my engineer unit was sent into country to rebuild some destroyed structures and road networks.  When we arrived there was an Engineer Captain who had been on site since the invasion.  We were warned that he was going native and that we should be careful when giving him instructions.

In this context, ‘going native’ means that a person adopts the culture (the ways of doing things in another organization or society) where they are located.  The Captain, who had a distinguished career, was starting to adopt a small part of the Panamanian culture; something we called the Mañana condition.  In other words, whatever assignment we gave him and regardless of its priority, there would be no hurry to begin.  For the Captain, going native was a curse.

Mañana means ‘tomorrow’ in Spanish and we would frequently hear it said whenever we gave requests to Panamanians.  Part of the U.S. Army’s aggressive culture is to carry out all missions as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.  The person who adopts the attitude that a mission can wait until tomorrow, will now experience a clash of ideas.

We gave the Captain tasks that we expected to be executed within 24 hours.  With the first task, he waited until the last minute to tell us he didn’t understand the problem and the second time, he was “too busy” to get the task done.  He had truly gone native.

Going native is not a derogatory concept when used this way.  It matters not whether the culture (or subculture) adopted has a positive or negative influence on their behavior.  Going native means simply picking up the culture of others for yourself.  In this example, the Captain had gone native but to everyone’s disadvantage.

The solution was that he be sent home immediately.  Taking him back to Fort Hood, Texas would reintroduce him to other Engineer soldiers, where he would readopt the cultural ways of the U.S. Army.  This is similar to new trainees entering the military service.  They must learn to take up U.S. military methods and forget their old civilian mentality that is much less aggressive.

The leadership of the U.S. military are aware of this and rotate their troops overseas every year or two and bring them back to the U.S. where they are exposed to our military culture.  We have all experienced going native at some point and we may have not even recognized it.  As leaders we should be aware of the problem and be prepared to deal with it quickly.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “Going Native: a Leader’s Curse

  1. Dennis Mathes

    Gen. Satterfield, good article today and one that most folks don’t even think about. That is why senior leaders must have relevant experiences to be truly effective. Of course, they must also have good charactert traits.

  2. Shawn C. Stolarz

    I never heard of this idea before. Thanks to all also who wrote in with personal examples.

  3. Danny Burkholder

    Hmmmmm, interesting blog post this morning. I was sitting back thinking of what you wrote here, Gen. Satterfield and got to wondering if that is what happened in my company a few years ago. We had two locations; one in New York City and the other Kansas City. We were trying to expand our customer service and improve it in KC. Never worked out. Our point guy retired in the KC area later and married one of our employees there. Never saw it coming.

    1. Jonathan B.

      Yes, that might have been it. I’ve seen it happen on a number of occasions in the medical field.

  4. Nick Lighthouse

    I work for a small company but one that has 12 locations where we spend a lot of time interfacing with the customer and doing what we can to help them interface with the US Department of Defense. This is not a problem, at least I don’t think so, because everyone who works for us is retired military or DoD civilian. Great article today.

  5. Eric Coda

    This whole concept is something that only those who work in large, complex organizations will actually understand although it is pervasive throughout all organizations. You just get to see it better where a company (or the military) is so large that they are spread out over many locales and produce different products. This is why a strong senior leader is necessary to avoid such a problem.

  6. Lynn Pitts

    True, this is why the US military rotates their personnel around every few years. It’s to get quality people into positions that have not picked up on a lazy or corrupt subculture. They don’t necessarily pick it up from a local culure but it can grow from a poor command structure.

  7. Mr. T.J. Asper

    How interesting this concept is. I think that I’ll introduce it to my HS students sometime soon. I’ll be reseraching it and looking for more examples.

  8. Mike Baker

    Interesting article. I never heard of this but makes sense. Thanks.

  9. Drew Dill

    I once sent one of my employees out to a remote site where we were having trouble. His job was to figure out their problem. When he didn’t find anything, I personally went after 6 months and found the problem immediately. The remote site folks were just lazy but produced the ‘minimum’ to get by. They were having a great time. My representative was going native and he didn’t notice it.

    1. Dennis Mathes

      Yes, I’ve discovered the same thing. When sending people out for a period of time, it is best you send some of your most experienced people and have close oversight.

    2. Drew Dill

      There was, of course, much more the story and several peoples careers were ruined over it. We discovered that when people were going native that they were most often taking the easy road. Lazy is an understatement.

  10. Army Captain

    I ran into the same situation in Afghanistan with several people who were able to get a couple of tours strung together. They were staffers who just wanted to be away from prying eyes; none of them were in critical jobs so they were comfortable yet went native.

    1. Georgie M.

      Thanks for your service to our country and for giving us an example from your experience.

    2. Darryl Sitterly

      Thanks Army Captain for your example. It is always good to have a personal example to reinforce what is written here. I personally never had experienced this phenom.

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