Honest Conversations

By | June 30, 2020

[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:

  1. Don’t get too comfortable in your new role; there are plenty of others that can take your place with little notice.
  2. You are judged on results and how well you take care of your people. There are no excuses for failure, period.
  3. 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.
  4. Prepare now for your next assignment. If you wait, you will fail.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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.

22 thoughts on “Honest Conversations

  1. Tom Bushmaster

    This list provided by Gen. Satterfield is actually much better than it might seem on first reading. It contains a number of key attributes endemic in the most successful of successful leaders. The fact that “you are judged on results and how you care for others around you” is something that has long been overlooked by so many at the mediocre level of leadership. The pinnacle is reached only thru the highest of standards, far surpasses us normal men (oh, and women).

    1. Watson Bell

      Good point, Tom. Yes, great leaders are rare but they are necessary.

  2. Shawn C. Stolarz

    Very good blog post today, Gen. Satterfield, so thanks. Always a good to read up on what you think is an important leader trait.

  3. Georgie M.

    I found it interesting that as you climbed higher in the military organization that you found honesty increased. While that is a good thing, my observations of recent city rioting and looting that many of the mayors and governors are not being honest with us. They have a double standard that is shocking. They tell us to not go out in public but then they walk with protestors. What’s up with that.

    1. Harry B. Donner

      Hypocrisy is another form of dishonesty. It’s corruption at the core. Just look at NYC.

    2. Bryan Lee

      Yes, and here is a link to the violence playing out in Seattle Wash as the rioters confront each other. Is there a difference in ‘peaceful protestors’ and rioters and looters?

  4. Kenny Foster

    Let’s all not kid ourselves about how more senior leaders are treated. They have a tough road to follow. Most of us have no idea at all how difficult it is to be a senior leader today. I guess ever but today is obviously a difficult time for them. Too many, IMO, are cowards. We see that as the kowtow to the BLM and PC ideologies that are out there.

    1. Randy Goodman

      Kenny, you stole my thunder as I was about to write the same thing about the cowardice of so many leaders. Even Gen. Satterfield has told us of times he was a coward for not coming forward fast enough to make some wrong into something right. Thanks all great conversations.

  5. Yusaf from Texas

    Another mark on the wall for this leadership website. I certainly enjoy reading it daily and having a cup of coffee. A great way to start the day.

  6. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    I especially liked #5. “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.” I will add that it is a good idea to listen to those in which you disagree as if they have something of value to say. Listen closely, you might actually learn something. That is the way of great leaders.

    1. JT Patterson

      You are absolutely right Otto. Too bad we don’t listen very well. My mom used to tell me that and now my wife. But, alas, I did okay. But I hope that I’m humble enough to keep trying and get better at listening.

    2. Newtown Manager

      And, I agree but the entire list is great. I’ll be showing my boss the list today. I hope he uses it on some of our team leaders who are lagging a bit behind in the productivity area and not taking care of their teams as well as they should.

  7. Valkerie

    Another excellent article from General Satterfield’s pen. Keep up the work you are doing to dole out leadership tidbits once spoon full at a time.

  8. Eric Coda

    Excellent example of an honest conversation. I wish that you would print more articles on honest conversations. Gen. Satterfield this was a spot-on article that also gave me some clarity. Your brigade commander was not tiptoeing thru the roses with his talk with you. I’m glad you shared it with us. 😊

    1. Tony B. Custer

      If we all had these type of open, honest, and brutal conversations our entire lives, we would all be better, more happy and satisfied individuals.

    2. Darryl Sitterly

      Your boss certainly did not judge you based on your gender or skin color but on your performance. That is what we all should be judged on. Our character matters a great deal.

      1. Max Foster

        — but too many people no longer believe that. What did Martin Luther King, Jr. say about being judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Too much emphasis on the tribal color of our skin and not enough on what we can do. Oh, yes, many will call MLK a racist for saying it and me for repeating it.

        1. Lady Hawk

          Sad, but very true Max. Thanks again for sharing your analysis.

  9. Doug Smith

    Oh, this is truly a tough briefing by your commander. Very honest and open about his expectations.

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      Yes, and very refreshing. I can also see what Gen.Satterfield was thrilled at the time to be taking on such a huge and highly responsible position. It would demand a great deal of his intellect and energy with a bit of experience thrown in for good measure.

      1. Jonathan B.

        You got that right The Kid 1945. Too bad we all don’t get this briefing (or counseling). When others demand excellence from us, we tend to either rise up to the occasion or like so many college students and their professors, we wilt before it.


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