Ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and command performance

Illustration of the Anabase by Xenophon

I became a fan of the FTGN podcast last year when they launched season 2. I like it because the questions that Joe asks are usually questions I really want the answers to.

I don’t want to know about General Votel’s career highlights – I want to know how he finds time to reflect.

I don’t want to know about General McChrystal’s running routine – I want to know how he dealt with the fallout of the Rolling Stone article.

And I don’t want to know what it felt like for Diamond Dallas Page to lead a successful wrestling career – I want to know how he dealt with his life crumbling around him.

Season 3 of the podcast recently launched. I’m already a couple of episodes behind, but I just finished episode 1 with author Kim Scott.

Kim Scott is the author of Just Work: Get Sh*t Done Fast and Fair and Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. Kim managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley. (Bio courtesy of Kim’s Website)

S3, E1: Kim Scott, From The Green Notebook Podcast

I have not read the books yet, but like my ever-expanding podcast queue, they’re on my book list.

It’s a fascinating episode to lead off with. I love Joe’s podcasts with military personnel, but I prefer his episodes with folks from outside of the profession. This one was no different.

Things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Ruinous empathy and Maniplative Insincerity. These are concepts from Scott’s book Radical Candor. And they’re the type of frames that instantly ascribe an idea you may have been thinking about but have a hard time putting a name to. We’ve hammered the importance of empathy to death in military circles over the past few years – and for good reason. It’s a skill that was missing for a long time among many military leaders. But it comes with two edges to the blade. There is such a thing as being too empathetic where it gets in the way of giving the advice or feedback that is necessary to make a person better or accomplish a given mission. Manipulative insincerity is related, but different. It’s when we heap praise on someone or something without actually caring – we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do. Everyone – especially soldiers – sniff this out pretty quickly and it doesn’t actually contribute to positive outcomes.
  • Xenophon. Joe made reference to Xenophon, the ancient Greek scholar/military leader. This is only interesting to me because over the past year I’ve done some deep-dive research on Xenophon in relation to a much bigger research project I’m working on. A year ago I didn’t know who he is – now I know way too much. Once you start digging, you realize that his profiles of the “two Cyruses” is the inspiration to a wide range of thought leaders, from Machiavelli to Thomas Jefferson. The genesis of my interest in Xenophon comes from an exploration of T. E. Lawrence’s Greek education and his reference to Xenophon in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

There remained the psychological element to build up into an apt shape. I went to Xenophon and stole, to name it, his word diathetics, which had been the art of Cyrus before he struck.

T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
  • The importance of handwritten notes. Joe and Kim have a short discussion on the power of handwritten notes. It feels good to be told you’re doing well, it feels great to get an email that you’re doing well (with your chain of command cc’d), and it is something special to get a handwritten note out of the blue. Remember, everything old is new again. Dale Carnegie famously writes in How to Win Friends… “Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise.”
  • Sitting in awkward silence. When asking for feedback, state your request, and then shut your mouth. Count to six. It’s not easy. But if you can just keep quiet for a second longer, you can often compel the other to fill the silence. In our hyper-distracted world, this is a tough challenge. Try it. And practice it over time.
  • The assumption of the 20 year career. Too often when we counsel others in the military, if we are career-minded ourselves, we tend to assume the other has similar aspirations. The “20 year career” seems like the gold standard. With the termination of the 20 year retirement, this will likely change over time. The point is, aspirations of military service are not uniform. Most service-members will not stay in until retirement. It is a calling, a service, and a duty. There is more to get out of life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with meeting people where they are and helping them achieve their goals – not yours.
  • Command Performance. There’s a short discussion towards the end about the things peers and subordinates (and sometimes superiors) may do or say in front of others, and the importance of responding. This often takes the form of either controversial, subversive, or “envelope-pushing” speech/behavior. It’s often done subconciusly, I think, as a way to see how people will respond. I’ve written about this before and labeled it “command performance.” How is the PL going to react when I say or do this thing that goes against the grain? If she does nothing, then isn’t that tacit approval of the behavior/speech?

A good conversation with lots to think about.

Glad to have the podcast refreshing again in my queue and I look forward to the rest of the season!

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Command Performance

There is a strange phenomenon you’ll notice when junior soldiers are around their leaders, especially in the first days and weeks that the leader shows up. It happens mostly when soldiers are in groups, lounging around, bullshitting. One of the junior soldiers might casually drop in a borderline inappropriate comment, or say something insubordinate. Usually tame at first, but often in increasing intensity. The whole purpose is to test out the new leader, to see how he or she is going to respond. The entire group is likely aware of the mild transgression – every one knows the rules and regulations.

This isn’t to say that this is a phenomenon that occurs at strictly the junior level. It happens at all levels. Junior soldiers (whether this be Privates to Sergeants or Captains to Lieutenant Colonels) test the limits of what their superiors will deal with by dropping lines and waiting for a reaction. I know I’ve been guilty of this with my bosses, both when I was enlisted and now. A firm statement to stop would be incredibly awkward and might make the superior appear “lame.” Ignoring the transgression, though, might breed a toxic culture.

Stranger, is I don’t think this “command performance” is done consciously. I don’t think someone says “Okay, now I’m going to go test the new guy, see where his left and right limits are.” I think it just happens spontaneously. Part of it is probably just trying to get noticed by your boss, and the quickest way to do that is to be outrageous or offensive.

As I’ve gotten older, I notice the ‘command performances’ that happen around me a lot more keenly. There is a purpose to it. A statement said in your presence that isn’t directly challenged might be construed as tacit permission.

For example, a soldier that casually says “I really don’t like these side plates, I’ll probably just take them out” in the presence of a leader and it goes unchallenged might say later when he is scolded for not wearing his side plates that he had said he was going to do it in front of this or that leader and nothing was said then.

The ‘command performance’ is something to look out for. While it could be nothing, it could also be the very first sign in a long process that leads to a catastrophe. Once you recognize it exists, it’s a lot easier to spot. I don’t think the answer is to angrily reject any wild thing that is said as part of it, as that’s the fast track to isolation as a leader, but to tactfully steer the conversation back on track and demonstrate where you stand on the issue – clearly – without being a dick.

*Command Performance was a radio program that ran during World War II for deployed troops. Here’s a link to Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on one of the shows.

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Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ for US troops (1943)

Through one of the internet’s many rabbit holes, I came across this video from 1943 of Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the ‘Command Performance‘ program. She is introduced here by Bob Hope.

‘Over the Rainbow’ as a theme seems a universe away from ‘Courtesy of the Red White and Blue‘ so I dug a little further. ‘Over the Rainbow’ debuted in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. It came to be thought of as a symbol of the United States by US troops (Barnet, Nemerov, and Taylor, The Story Behind the Song). Their book makes it seem like it was the go-to anthem during World War II, much like Toby Keith’s song became popular in the years following the September 11th attacks. I haven’t been able to track down any more information on it, though.

‘Over the Rainbow’ would later be named the #1 song in a film of all time by the American Film Institute.

Enjoy.

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