Warning: This is long. If you hang to the end, you may be throwing my own advice back at me. ;-)
It’s a hard truth in the world I chose for my first career that if you don’t like your boss, there’s usually not a lot you can do about it. Fortunately, most of the people I’ve worked for have ranged from not-all-that-bad to downright awe-inspiring. A rare few were mentors from whom I’ve taken lessons that will serve me to the end of my days, whether leading from a command position, executing another’s policy as first mate, or consensus building as a member of a group of equals.
I list those three particular realms here (there is, of course, also simply doing as one’s told in the follower role, and though even that is harder than many think, it requires far less finesse than any of the foregoing three) because I believe they cover three very distinct roles that may be required of a leader, and they require three very distinct skill sets for success. The latter two I’m going to give short shrift today; not because I don’t value them as much as the first, or think them equally complex, but because this post is really about that first skill set, and about the danger of confusing the requirements of any of those three roles. So what I will say about those other roles will be in relation to the role of commander.
To begin with, one of the most important roles of the first mate is to give honest input to the captain of the ship, and then to execute the captain’s policies whether in agreement or not. That person incapable of executing policy with which he or she disagrees will necessarily fail as a first mate. Likewise, the person without the courage to speak up when the ship’s course places all in danger may seem to succeed depending on the character of the captain, but that person seems guilty to me of a moral failing not much less serious than mutiny. What good is such an officer except as an agent to crack the whip on the backs of the crew? In all cases, the captain’s role is to make such input possible, to encourage it, to value it, to actually hear it, and then to make a decision with confidence that mate and crew alike will execute that decision. This pas de deux obviously requires a great deal from both parties. One of the worst things someone in a position of genuine command can do is squelch input. Input doesn’t always begin as dissent, but input discarded immediately because it doesn’t token full agreement will often fester into dissent of the worst kind—the silent sort that eats at the heart of an organization.
Equally as dangerous is input never heard because the commander is too busy mistakenly assuming that third role of consensus-builder. Commanders must frequently play this role, but only at “the big table” with their fellow commanders, their equals, whom they must convince rather than direct. (I use the word commander very consciously here. There are many organizations where leadership rotates, where the position of head is occupied temporarily by someone who will eventually return to the ranks, yielding leadership responsibilities to someone in those very ranks now. Many civilian academic departments function this way. In such organizations, consensus building may very well trump outright command as the appropriate mode, but the military is not such a place.) In the military, a skilled commander must be able to shift from consensus building with equals to blunt direction with subordinates, still soliciting, hearing, and incorporating input from below as appropriate. But this latter skill is not to be confused with consensus building. I have seen what can happen in an organization where someone in a position of full command makes the mistake of believing that consensus is necessary. Kahlil Gibran said in The Prophet, “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.” The commander who spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to convince subordinates that the ship is on the right course will inspire nothing but worry in the crew.
And that is what all that follows is really about. A younger friend in just such a position of command with just such a problem recently asked for help in understanding why his unit’s morale was dragging along the depths like an anchor. It didn’t help that he’d been given command of a unit whose demographics were wholly unlike anything he’d ever commanded before, and that he neglected, largely, to take those differences into account. Nor did it help that he lacked experience with many of the finer points of the mission. This latter challenge though, was easily surmountable by depending on the seasoned crew, especially the ship’s officers. What paralyzed this person though, and undermined his success more than any other thing, was an over-valuation of consensus and an accompanying drive toward speaking it into existence that simultaneously silenced the voices of those who might have helped and announced to the crew at large that the captain was uncertain of both his role and his course. The result was an exodus of both officers and crew at the first opportunity they had. Those who stayed largely did so because they were not at a place where their careers would allow their departure. And those who stayed were and are unhappy.
But there may be hope. That person, whose very drive to consensus building is, among other things, a sign of how much he genuinely cares, recently asked for help in understanding the rancor among the ranks. Again, a person who didn’t genuinely care would not be so heart-wounded by the state of things. In answer, I offered some encouragement and the following simple advice: Talk less; listen more.
So, while this post is already longer than most anything I’ve bothered to share before, here, somewhat edited for more general application, is advice for anyone in a position of genuine command who struggles with a desire for consensus from the ranks. Bottom line: Talk less; listen more.
My friend, keep caring and keep trying. No one willing to objectively evaluate your time at the helm could realistically accuse you of being unconcerned with the welfare of your troops, the care with which you execute the mission, or the overall health of your parent unit as a whole. You have most of the right concerns at heart.
But all that said, you must somehow learn to change one thing before your unit’s morale is going to begin the long journey from the depths it’s plumbed back to the surface: Talk less; listen more.
Take as an example, any policy you wish to which the majority of your command may have once voiced objections. What are people’s objections to it? Ask your secretary and you’ll probably be told that no one really has any. Actually, they did once upon a time, but they’ve learned how fruitless it is to voice those objections. If someone were to come to the front office to “discuss” a policy, one might hope that they would be asked “What is it you don’t like about it?” “What do you suggest instead?” “Are there any adjustments we could make to the current program to make it more palatable?” The bottom line is, every question should lead to another question, because, in the end, if the commander’s mind isn’t changed by the complainant, then nothing changes. No justification from the commander is required, period. You can thank a troop for his/her input and send them on their merry way. You’ve lost nothing by listening, but you might learn something, hear some view that you were unaware of before.
Too often however, by all reports, that brave hypothetical soul can expect to spend 25 of their 30 minutes in your office hearing answers to all of the following questions, notwithstanding the fact that they never asked them: “Why does the commander think it’s a good idea?” “How does the commander think it should affect their morale?” “How does the commander think it aligns with current service policy?” “What advantages does the image of the unit gain from such a policy?” “What personal gains will the individual inevitably achieve as a result of the policy?” “How does the time commitment compare favorably to some other equally onerous policy that might be instituted instead?” “How popular by contrast (or similarly unpopular) was a similar policy that the commander enforced in a previous assignment?” “How did the commander handle objections from people in that unit?” “What were those people’s objections?” “How is the policy, and particularly any objections anyone might have to it, indicative of larger issues within the unit?” “In what way does the troop’s complaint or attitude remind the commander of some incident that occurred during the commander’s tenure as Executive Officer to some other well-respected commander?” And so on. The point is, people in your unit have learned that anyone coming to you to voice an objection to a policy or procedure can plan on spending 25 of any 30 minutes listening to the commander’s arguments for something rather than having their own input on it heard. Result: people stop trying to voice an opinion and you are left wondering why morale is in the toilet.
I am not suggesting that every complaint or objection should drive a commander to change a policy or procedure—far from it. Military command is not a democracy. In many cases, you can let your troops talk for 30 minutes, thank them for their honesty, and leave the policy or procedure in place. You will still have changed something: they will feel that you listened, perhaps even that you heard. That in itself will earn their respect and go a long way toward gaining their less grudging compliance. But if you spend most of the time you have with them talking to them, giving them your rationale for a decision, trying to sway them to your point of view, you will accomplish one thing and one thing only: they will stop talking to you. They will learn that, despite the fact that you may be interested in their opinion, you lack the listening skills to receive it, to draw it out, to encourage it. They’ll learn to be quiet. You will isolate yourself. And you will wonder how it happened. How it has already happened.
Talk less; listen more. In any 30 minutes spent with someone you command, you should spend 25 of it listening. Three of your five minutes should be spent in asking questions to keep them talking. Give yourself no more than two for expressing your own opinion. That’s more than enough.
Talk less; listen more. The same rules apply even if someone comes to you for advice. Ask them questions. What they really mean when they ask for advice is not, “What would you do?” but, “How would you go about making this decision?” The answer is not, “I would consider this, then this, then this?” The answer is, “Have you thought about this? What about this? And this?” Each question asked with pauses to allow them to answer. In the end, they’ll have done most of the talking, but you’ll get credit for having “given” them the advice they sought.
Talk less; listen more. You wondered aloud recently why unit members don’t want to spend time with one another at functions like your annual social, but I’m told, I’m sorry to relate, that you give little heed to the answers when they come. Rather than asking the right questions of the right people, they say you spend your time trying to talk them into enthusiasm. “Everyone should want to go. Everyone should feel an obligation to go. We owe it to each other. It’s tradition. It’s simply part of being a good officer.” Talk less, and listen more, and you may learn how to make it an event no one will want to miss. Or maybe not. But you will certainly never talk such an event or attitude into existence. Such consensus is impossible to build through words. The event was originally conceived as something that would be fun. Somewhere along the way it lost that as a raison d’etre. Restore the fun or abolish the event. Is there some risk in such an activity? Absolutely. But it’s worth remembering Churchill’s remark that there’s nothing so exhilarating as to be fired upon without effect. These are warriors after all.
I’ll just say it one more time: Talk less; listen more. If you doubt my analysis of the root problem here, then I challenge you to put it to the test. Keep a stopwatch discreetly in your hand during an office visit from some troop. Use it to time the amount of time they spend speaking and compare it to the overall length of the visit. If the result, initially, doesn’t support what I’ve said above about the way most conversations in your office go, then you can feel vindicated. But, if it does support it, then you simply need to decide whether my advice is worth anything or not. If you think an open-door policy is really just a good opportunity for you to transmit instead of receive, then you should save yourself some time and have more frequent commander’s calls to lecture everyone at once.
Lastly, if you decide there may be something to that simple four-word mantra I’m offering, you’ll need to be cognizant of one final hurdle. The longer you’ve spent in transmit-only mode, the longer it may take for your troops to recover. But it’s an intelligent bunch we have the honor of leading, and while it doesn’t take long for such unbridled consensus seeking from a commander to engender a culture of studied silence, neither does it take long for genuine change of almost any sort to be noticed. If you are willing to learn to listen, it may amaze you how much you’ll hear and how soon.
At any rate, I hope this is helpful. I wish you nothing but the best, now and always.