The Three Hardest Words for Leaders: “I Don’t Know”

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“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus, Discourses

I think three of the hardest words for leaders to say are, “I don’t know.” No matter the situation, we want to have the answers. We want to be trusted by our subordinates, peers and leaders. Trust within organizations is based on both competence and character, but sometimes we value competence over character. Many of us have even sacrificed character to appear more competent than we actually were.

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That’s #NCOBusiness

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Hey NCOs!

We recognize that it’s our NCO Corps that makes our military great. So, we’re running a series in September called #NCOBusiness. Every article will be for NCOs by NCOs and we’re looking for submissions!

This is a great opportunity to contribute and share your hard earned lessons with those coming behind you as well as those looking for some help.We’d like to hear from all the Services too, because you never know when your ideas will help a fellow NCO out in another branch of the military.

Want to contribute, but don’t know what to write about—Here are some ideas:

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The Jump: Preparing for the Transition to Organizational Leadership

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By: Josh Suthoff

The jump from direct to organizational leadership in the military is probably one of the most trying non-combat tests an officer or senior non-commissioned officer will experience. In a few years a company commander will go from leading/managing a hundred Soldiers to over 500. No longer is there the comfort of relaying your guidance face to face with your subordinates.

All leaders do not make the jump easily and Army career windows move at such a fast pace that someone may fail before they even realize it. An Army major today only spends around 24 months in their key developmental assignments, certainly not enough time to master the position. The best company commanders are not always the best field grade officers, because of choice or failure to adapt. In order to be successful, the jump to organizational leadership must be taught and reflected on prior to execution. Here are some key points I believe must be understood to set the conditions for that transition.

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Leaders Must be Ready When Tragedy Strikes

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By Brittany Simmons

Following my time as a battalion and brigade S3, I experienced a broadening opportunity working in the Department of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division at Army Human Resources Command for about 20 months. CMAOD is mostly a civilian employee-run organization that, alongside installation Casualty Assistance Centers and Casualty Assistance Officers, works extremely hard with immense compassion to honor our fallen and take the utmost care of Army Families. In my time at CMAOD, I made some observations on what our Army units do well, don’t do well, and simply don’t know when it comes to Soldier deaths.

The Army trains to treat and evacuate casualties on the battlefield, but I saw enough from inside the process to believe we can do better at home, where we see most of these casualties, simply by gaining some additional knowledge at all levels of leadership. We, Army leaders, put an emphasis on taking care of Army Families, as we should. This is quite possibly the most important part of that.

Preparing for casualties has to go beyond planning our casualty collection points and knowing where on the battlefield our medical assets are. We have to prepare at home, too. Don’t get me wrong, we are not failing at this mission; however, at the unit level we can better posture ourselves in order to reduce the stress and complications that occur when tragedy happens, and thereby increase the readiness of both our formations and our Families.

In thinking through my time at CMAOD, I captured six key areas that I would offer to my fellow Army leaders to chew on and consider in order to do the casualty mission even better than we already do.

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Can Reading Make Us Better Leaders?

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One of my favorite podcasts is the Read to Lead Podcast hosted by Jeff Brown. In each episode he interviews an author about their book and discusses insights on leadership, personal development, productivity, and more. I recently caught up with Jeff to discuss the importance of reading for personal growth, book recommendations, and how to incorporate reading into our weekly battle rhythms. 

Joe: You went from not reading at all to reading becoming the focal point of your professional career. That’s a drastic leap. Can you discuss your transformation?

Jeff: From the time I graduated college until I was in my early 30’s, I didn’t do any reading at all. That was in large part because when I was done with school I didn’t think I had to learn anymore. One day, a supervisor introduced some business books – books from Seth Godin, Jim Collins, Pat Lencioni and suddenly I saw the light. It helped that the person who recommended the books was someone I had a lot of respect for and I was ready to learn. So as I read Purple Cow by Seth Godin and Good to Great by Jim Collins and Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Pat Lencioni, I was mesmerized by what was available and what I had been missing out on.

I learned that if I wanted to grow in my career and as a human being, that I had to be a life-long learner. Learning never stops. I would finish a book and then start another one. I was looking for more recommendations, much like you provide on your site, and taking advantage of services like Audible on my commute. And it snowballed from there.

Joe: How do you think reading improved your leadership abilities, or for that matter, improves anyone’s leadership abilities?

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Balancing Authority and Responsiblity

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By: Aaron Haubert

We begin with two scenarios:

1) Without a formal role, an extra officer joins a headquarters company and dives right in. His rank ensures he’s listened to, but his directions run counter to the rhythm of the shop. Soon the shop is in disarray.

2) Tasked with her first assignment, a new lance corporal struggles. She has plenty of initiative but has difficulty rallying people around her to help. By necessity, she often says, “Gunny needs you to do this.” Calls back to Gunny are frequent and create a perception that she is ineffectual.

The experiences of these two Marines appear worlds apart. But they both share the one trait that determines success or failure for all leaders: Their authorities and their responsibilities are unbalanced.

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An XO’s Guide to Staff Dominance

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By Josh Suthoff

Like any field grade I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about counseling. How do you effectively communicate to subordinates what you are looking for in them to be successful? I cherish my company grade years, but I have realized that the field grade and staff years really separate the best officers and non-commissioned officers from the rest of the pack. The ability to adapt and the level of agility become more easily discernible among the senior ranks. The maxim in organizations I have worked is, “Staff Dominance” (outperform your adjacent or higher headquarters). Be the best. But what does that look like or how do we get to the best?

I enjoyed my time as a battalion executive officer because I was able to influence many younger officers and NCOs and I understood that I directly affected how they saw and enjoyed their profession. Personally, I experienced very little counseling in the early years of my career and was determined to do things differently. One-on-one initial counseling is a great way to provide clear expectations and also learn a lot about subordinates. I have never believed in the massive memo-style counseling statements that explain in excruciating detail every aspect of a staff person’s job and obvious adherence to Army values. I think we can narrow down the qualities of a good officer/NCO to a few traits, my initial counseling format has little more than the bolded points below:

Answer the mail: Very simply, do what your boss tells you to do. Staff members should never have their own priorities, but constantly be working those of their boss. Leaders, especially at the pace the Army works, do not have time to run down answers to tasks after they are given. If your boss has to ask you twice about the status of priority task, you have probably failed. Once a subordinate has shown they can be given a task and come back on their own with the answer, they are well on their way to the circle of trust.

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On Networking: It’s Not About You

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By: Jason Criss Howk

In the fall of 2002, I was a first lieutenant on the 82nd Airborne Division Staff in Afghanistan when I was selected by Major General Karl Eikenberry to be his aide. I extended my 4-month tour to a year-long deployment, and transplanted myself into the US Embassy in less than a week.

It was the best job a junior staff officer could get in the country. It was the equivalent to a master’s degree in international relations. But more than that it was a chance to learn about the power of constant networking, or what I refer to as Eikenberry’s 5% rule.

Over the course of 10 months, I spent 18 hours a day with Karl Eikenberry. I watched him use every minute of his day, every event, every meeting to network with others that could help achieve America’s broader mission.

When most people here the word networking they immediately think of it in a bad light. It’s for brown-nosers or people looking to cheat the army promotion and assignment system. But there’s another way to look at it. It’s the way some of our most successful war-time leaders view it.

Networking is not about you. Not about your next job. Not about an early promotion. Not about your selfish desires.

Networking is what makes good leaders great. It’s about connecting every single person in the JIIM universe that might be able to make America’s broad mission successful. Since 2001 some “masters of networking” have revolutionized military units like the Joint Special Operations Command, making it the model for other military units and interagency cooperation. In the end, networking is the glue that connects “teams of teams.”

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Future Army Leaders: Expert Specialists or Master Generalists?

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By Franklin C. Annis, EdD

Many of us know the adage, “A jack of all trades and master of none.” This phrase, in the modern usage, is usually used to describe an individual that is functional in several different skills but lacks the ability to really perform well in any of them. However, the phrase may have carried a significantly different meaning when it was first invented. Almost no one knows the passage often ended with the clause, “…is sometimes better than a master at one.” This addition significantly changes the meaning of what we can draw from the phrase. Often polymaths, individuals with interest in a multitude of areas, possess a distinct advantage over those that specialize in only one subject (monomaths). As the Army continues to push leaders to think outside the box it may be time to examine how “the box” developed and how we can truly test its limits.

What we think of as “the box” probably has an origin much earlier than many would guess. In 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the industrial revolution drastically increased the productivity of society by having individuals focus on one specific step in a manufacturing process. While he noted the increase in productivity, he also noted that it robbed men of something larger. While the “art” of manufacturing may have improved, it came at the expense of the artisan. As Tocqueville explains in his work Democracy in America, “While the workman concentrates his faculties more and more upon the study of a single detail, the master surveys an extensive whole, and the mind of the latter is enlarged in proportion as that of the former is narrowed.” As workers became more and more specialized, they soon adapted strict concepts and assumptions that applied only to the craft of making their assigned part.

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The 2018 Ultimate Summer Reading List

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With summer vacations quickly approaching I reached out to a group of successful leaders, authors, journalists, and podcast hosts for book recommendations. I asked them to suggest a book and why they picked it.

The books on this list range from science fiction to leader development to quantum physics. I hope you find a title on this list that sparks your interest and you grab a book, a beer, and enjoy your summer.

General (RET) Stanley McChrystal, Managing Partner of McChrystal Group

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The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot

I’ve just finished Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken, Edward Landsdale’s story, focused heavily on the Philippines and Vietnam.  While it’s a good narrative of Landsdale’s unique role in America’s counterinsurgency efforts in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, the angle I found fascinating (and cautionary) was not Landsdale’s deft skill in dealing with foreign leaders like Magsaysay and Diem, but his failure within our own governmental bureaucracy.  It raises the question to what extent his ideas struggled due to the messenger and not the validity of the message.

Admiral (RET) James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

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American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad

 

A first novel by the Canadian-Arab journalist Omar El Akkad, this searing tale moves the reader forward over half-a-century into a dystopian future in which a second American civil war has unfolded.  The south is again pitted against the rest of the country, this time over the use of hydrocarbons.  Mexico has invaded the US and annexed portions of the southwest, and other parts of early 21st century America have succeeded.  Florida is overcome by rising sea levels and no longer exists.  Our society is brutally polarized.  Against this backdrop, the characters of this novel  grow, love, struggle, and sacrifice for the causes in which they passionately believe.  Is this the future of the United States?  Hopefully not; but the potential extension of the extreme divisions in our society today are clearly the inspiration for this brilliant and tragic tale.

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