[September 6, 2020] There is not a person I know that hasn’t been surprised by something coming at them out of nowhere. One day, you get up and run out the door to work and, while driving along minding your own business, a car sideswipes your new pickup truck. Indeed the car was in your blind spot, and you never saw it until it was too late.
I was at a meeting of volunteers that had assembled at one of our local community colleges to assist in the creation of a new STEM degree. It was a great group of folks – leaders in their fields – from a variety of academic, commercial, and governmental organizations. A friend of mine (also a college professor) and I were talking before the event when an older woman from the college approached us and asked if I were an Army General.
“Yes,” I said, “but I’m now retired.” She also asked if I had a college degree, to which I answered, “Yes, several.” Then the surprise … she said that it was a shame that the United States spends so much money educating military officers just to send them off to war to get killed. I was a bit taken aback but muttered something like, “the education we give them is so that they can best save lives on the battlefield.” She was taking none of this in, and she stalked off. She had fixated on the interrelationship of war, education, and money. It was a blind spot for her.
All of us have blind spots that we should discover and correct. The way to do this is with careful introspection and remaining alert to avoid them. Also, we, as leaders, are obligated to notice such things in others so that we, too, are vulnerable to those same blind spots.
The first military blind spot I recall was with my Infantry company commander. I had been assigned only a few weeks when I noticed him reprimanding men in my platoon that their haircuts and shaving habits did not meet military standards. That was true enough. But his haircut and out-of-regulation mustache were also in violation of those same standards.
Later one of my blind spots about military education was pointed out to me during a peer-review 360-degree feedback process called the Multi-Source Assessment and Feeback system. I was not emphasizing military education sufficiently. I was quick to correct my oversight and became known as the “colonel with education on his shoulder.”
Other blind spots we can find in the military (and elsewhere), even among some of the best officers, are:
- Critical remarks about others, even in a joking manner, have a way of finding their way back home. This one is common and violates the fundamental principle of loyalty.
- The tendency to seek staff positions over troop assignments. The desire to prefer such staff positions leads to distancing oneself from soldiers and losing touch with their perspectives.
- A view that some officers are too old or too young for combat positions. This distorts the experience angle – for good or bad – and shows preference to discriminate unfairly and unjustly.
- Being overweight, consume alcohol or drugs, and talk too much is often viewed with disfavor. Those who are overweight are fatter than they think, alcohol drinkers whose alcoholic content is more evident than they realize, and compulsive talkers who would seem smarter if they said less.
It is the duty of military superiors to call attention to the blind spots of their juniors for correction. We also have a personal obligation to ourselves to discover our own blind spots.
Note: Portions of this article is based on Maj Gen Aubrey “Red” Newman, USA (Ret) book “What Are Generals Made of?”