[June 30, 2020] There is a weakness in U.S. military leaders and their peers in the civilian sector. For the past few decades there is a problem and it is not getting better. The flaw is not apparent but the fix is easy. When senior leaders have honest conversations with those that work for them their leadership effectiveness will improve.
I’m reminded of many honest conversations I had with my mentor, senior commander, and I also had with those who worked for me. It seems funny to me now that the higher in the organization I got, the more honest things got for all of us.
One particularly memorable conversation I had with my Brigade Commander (a full Colonel) shortly after I was promoted and had my own Battalion command. What he told me stuck with me.
This is how the conversation went. Here is an excellent example of how honest conversations with leaders generally go:
- Don’t get too comfortable in your new role; there are plenty of others that can take your place with little notice.
- You are judged on results and how well you take care of your people. There are no excuses for failure, period.
- Your character will be tested. Temptations, unsolicited and unintended bribes, narcissism, and fear will surround you. If you deviate from doing what is right, you will no longer be in charge.
- Prepare now for your next assignment. If you wait, you will fail.
- Listen to those around you. If they complain or tell you things you don’t want to hear, then they are probably right on target.
- Your main job after the mission is to create more effective leaders. The better they are at their job, the better your reputation and the more success will come to you.
- How you treat the lowest person in your organization is a reflection of your character. No one will be watching, but you and that person will know.
- Everything is a test; you are always “on.” There is no such thing as “off the record” or “just sit back and relax.” When you eat lunch around the corner at a local café, you will be watched, and people will be looking for what you say and do.
- Get another graduate university degree. Do it without any disruption in your current leadership role. Doing many hard things at the same time is a reflection of your potential.
- Spend quality time with your family and friends.
No senior leader had ever been so honest with me. I had reached a point where professionalism was expected, and deviation from it would result in my removal from command. If I wanted to succeed, I had to work hard, have a tough skin, be brutally honest, earn respect, and be fiercely loyal. Anything short of that would mean the end of my career.
I enjoyed the clarity. It was a bit refreshing and a bit of a thrill. From that point on, I would use such honest conversations with those who worked for me every time I had the chance. As I traveled about the geographic area of my military unit, I always asked for a meeting with junior leaders (without anyone of higher rank present). I gave them a similar talk. Many would come up to me afterward to say they appreciated the honesty, and no one had ever given them such clarity also.
Senior military and civilian leaders are prone not to have honest conversations. The reason is simple. There is too much risk in being so straightforward. Many employees like to be stroked; to be told how great and wonderful they are. The truth is we are all weak and need someone to kick us in the rear to get us moving in the right direction.