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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Kicking in the cold

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Joe talks with Lawrence Tynes, former kicker for the New York Giants.

“We never know when it’s going to be our time… you just have to do it when your time comes.”

Joe Byerly, S2, E17: Lawrence Tynes- Performing Under Pressure – From the Green Notebook

I’m a lifelong Giants fan, so I really enjoyed this one. The 2007 Giants season was magical. I don’t think there will ever be a season with more intrigue. From the goal line stand in game three against Washington (which Lawrence references), to the end of the season game against the Patriots (where the Giants played their starters out of pride), the frozen game in Green Bay where Lawrence seals the victory with a 47 yarder in OT, to the incredible throw and catch in the last moments of the SuperBowl to defeat the undefeated Patriots.

After that season, I never felt like I needed to watch another football game again.

Lots of good stuff in this episode. I especially like the discussions about “being ready” as referenced in the quote above. I’ve written about this before – you don’t always get to decide when your time will come – but if you are a leader, you have to be ready. Place kickers feel that same pressure.

I am also intrigued by the leadership of Tom Coughlin – who I have a deep admiration for. When he came to New York initially, he took a lot of flak in the media because of his strict rules. His first few seasons weren’t great, and people questioned his approach. Some players bucked against his tough, old-fashioned style.

Slowly, though, the team turned.

I loved Lawrence talking about that game in Green Bay. He missed two earlier field goals – which he admits he should have made. As a fan, I remember thinking “don’t go for the field goal” when they hit that spot in overtime. Lawrence seemed to be “off.” And have no doubt, if he would have missed that field goal, every pundit would be questioning why Tom Coughlin let that happen when it was “clear” that Lawrence wasn’t feeling it that day.

But, despite the two earlier misses, Tom trusted Lawrence. And we all know the result.

Leaders find themselves in this position all the time – going to bat for someone who others may have written off. It takes real guts to do that.

What a great story.

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Work Ethic = Results: Diamond Dallas Page on FTGN

The one thing I do know is that The Rock, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Oprah, everyone of those power people, go down! They just don’t stay there. They feel it, and then they let it go and they start figuring out ‘how am I going to fix this?’

S2, E11: Diamond Dallas Page- The Power of Work Ethic – From the Green Notebook

When I first saw the graphic announcing that Diamond Dallas Page was going to be on an episode of the From The Green Notebook podcast, I literally laughed out loud because it seemed so outside of the norm of the folks who had been on the podcast previously – leaders like General (Ret) Votel and McChyrstal who spoke about leadership and Major General McGee who spoke about the Battalion Commander Assesment Program.

This seemed like a sudden departure – one that I fully welcomed. There is a tendency for military-themed sites and podcasts to become their own echo-chambers or an extended mouthpiece of “big army messaging” – this site not excluded. This was summed up nicely below:

The professionialization of military-themed sites (I don’t want to call it the military “blogosphere” anymore – because I think that era has passed) is a good thing. Sure there are things we are missing – like the raw experiences of soldiers that we saw in the last decade. But that stuff is still there, if you want it (Twitter/Instagram/Tik-Tok).

Going back to the podcast, it is absolutely a good thing to bring in folks outside of the military bubble. Different perspectives and experiences will keep us honest, and often offer insights we won’t get from hearing the same polished talking points from the same polished leaders, influencers, or thought leaders.

Like Joe, I was a wrestling fan growing up (huge NWO fan) and I knew DDP’s story. I also remember watching the Jake the Snake documentary years ago and being taken by the sadness of the wrestling industry and the way its superstars can fall into cycles of addiction and depression.

While this episode isn’t about DDP’s wrestling career, I found the parts describing the reality of that life fascinating. There’s what we see on TV – a well-lit, choreographed dance – and what happens in reality; broken bones, brutal work-schedules, all-day travel in a bus, petty professional jealousies.

Not very glamorous.

Below are the key take-aways and nuggets I got from the episode.

The central theme was the importance of work ethic. Joe and DDP talk about it on a few different occasions. DDP didn’t even get started in wrestling until he was in his thirties and he didn’t “make-it” until he had crested forty. I remember watching as a kid and thinking he seemed older than his peers. DDP credits his work ethic, stating “work ethic equals results” and later “work ethic equals dreams.”

This is something I’ve picked up on more and more over the years. There is a place for raw talent and genius, but for the rest of us, most success comes from hard work and consistency over time, with a little bit of luck and timing thrown in there as well. There’s simply no alternative to grinding through, happily.

On identity: there is a portion early in the episode where DDP and Joe discuss the fact that “this is all going to end.” If you’re a wrestler, you are going to get too old and hurt to keep going. Every soldier eventually takes off the uniform. There is a tendency in both professions to wrap ourselves up in the identity that comes with the profession. When that ends (which it will), it can lead to depression or a fall. As Colin Powell put in his famous rules – “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” Easy to say, harder to do.

“Don’t just think it, ink it.”

I’ve never heard this before, but it resonates instantly – and as a rhyming phrase, artificially holds more truth. Still,the practice of writing can be reflective and help bound you to your goals. Writing it down – somewhere – reinforces accountability and intention.

“It’s not about who you know, or who knows you, it’s about who’s willing to say they know you.”

Here, DDP is talking about people willing to put their names on the line for you. Mentors and mentorship relationships are great. But when things are going poorly, or you actually need some help, is there someone out there that is willing to put their name on the line? To pick up the phone and make that phone call? That is much more rare, and special.

On going to Iraq/Afghanistan: Nothing deep here, but as someone who has been in and around the military since the start of the GWOT, I’ve been fascinated by celebrity trips overseas. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a pretty common occurrence. What has struck me is how impactful those trips are, not for the soldiers (although that is important), but to the celebrities themselves.

Even though they may only spend a few days in a location, these trips seem to have a huge impact on them personally and you will often here it recounted in interviews as one of the most important things they have ever done. It’s a consistent theme I’ve heard over the years. It’s easy to be cynical, as some are, and chalk it up as self-serving, but I don’t think it is. Once you’re in the service, you can’t unknow it. For celebrities that make the trip, they really don’t know what to expect.

Lastly, I’ll close with the quote that opened the piece. DDP talks about the fact that everyone goes down at some point. “Going down” is different for everyone. It could be your job, your relationship, your mental health, your financial situation – whatever. There is going to be hardship. The important thing is to accept it, and as he says, “feel it,” and then begin moving on. This reminded me of Joe’s interview with Stanley McChyrstal where he talks about bouncing back from the Rolling Stone article – same story.

I got a lot more out of this episode than I thought I would. It’s short and worth the listen. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a wrestling fan or not – it’s a human story.

Lastly, FTGN is running a short essay contest (details here). The prompt is to write about the three lessons you’ve learned from any one of their podcasts. One of the key lessons I’ve learned from listening over the past few months is the importance of this writing practice (writing after listening) as a way of reflecting.

Congrats to Joe on the episode and I look forward to more surprises!

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Company grade work versus field grade work

I’m really enjoying this series on broadening over at FTGN.

I had a friend who was just promoted to LTC say: “I just pinned two weeks ago….when I turned in work as a major, people said “This is incredible,” but now they look at the same quality of work and say ‘Seriously?’”

The Responsibility of Preparedness: Choosing Broadening Assignments That Will Make You a Better Officer – From the Green Notebook

I’m becoming more interested in understanding the traits that distinguish good company grade officers (Lieutenants and Captains) from field grade officers (Majors and Lieutenant Colonels). I’ve heard it said that if you do the things that made you successful as a Captain when you’re a Major, you’ll distinguish yourself as the best Captain in your unit.

Yikes.

The linked post discusses how choosing a good broadening assignement can help build out some of those skills to better prepare you for the next job.

Consistent through the post was the important role of mentors in this regard. Mentors (to include those in your chain of command) will likely have a better idea of what you need to work on than you will.

It’s rare (in my experience) to see officers who want to take that OC/T assignment at Fort Irwin or Fort Polk – but that really might be the absolute best thing based on their current skill set and development needs. When choosing assigments, we all tend to focus on what we want versus what we need. Mentors can help cut through that.

Looking forward to the rest of the posts. Check it out.

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NCOs still give the best, no-frills advice

Good piece on the important role of soon-to-be senior enlsited advisors over at FTGN by Mike Burke.

As a SGM/CSM, you have the freedom to move throughout the formation and interact with all its members. Through discussion, you will be presented with innovative ideas, policy suggestions, and command culture insights. Through reflection, you will be better equipped to identify issues and envision how to implement changes.

The First Sergeant Blues – From the Green Notebook

Despite a deeply instilled fear of interacting with senior enlisted from my days as a junior enlisted soldier, I always make it a point to seek them out in my organization to get feedback before making a decision – especially, but not exclusively – when it comes to personnel. The advice is almost always spot-on, and usually leads to taking a course of action different from what I had originally intended.

My office floor is littered with good ideas rightfully shot to shreds by much wiser NCOs.

In the few instances where I’ve been witness to an officer choosing not to heed the advice of a senior enlisted advisor (at any echelon), it always went badly. That experience, earned over time (and often from seeing the same thing over and over) is invaluable.

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Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

A helicopter takes Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: ISAF

This is the second time I’ve written about a FTGN Podcast episode. The first was on retired General Joseph Votel. This one is their recent episode with retired General Stanley McChrystal. Retired generals do a lot of interviews, and they are (often) master communicators. It’s rare, then, that I actually find myself latching onto something that really grips me. In General Votel’s case it was his thoughts on reflecting that got me thinking.

For no other reason, you should listen to this episode because in it, McChrystal discusses how he dealt with his resignation in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article. This is the only time I ever really heard him talk about that. It’s a mini case-study in resiliency. And he makes an argument for narrative patience – what seems like an overwhelming avalanche today mostly dissapears by tomorrow.

Outside of that, it was three little things that caught my attention.

First, McChrystal mentioned John R. Vines as one of his significant mentors. John Vines is one of those names that you hear a lot in the Airborne/Ranger community of yore. He was the Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division when I arrived in 2001. When the GWOT started, he held roles in Afghanistan and later went on to command Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2005-2006. I’ve only interacted with him in the way that a Private normally interacts with a Division Commander – from the position of attention or parade rest, far away in a formation. What I remember, though, is he had an incredible reputation for being a paratrooper’s paratrooper. I always had the sense that he was revered as the epitome of what it meant to be an officer in the 82nd.

His name is not one you hear much about these days. He retired shortly after the GWOT began. But I suspect his leadership and mentorship had a significant hand in the careers of many of the General Officers we know today. McChrystal, Petraeus, and Votel were all Deputy Commanding Generals of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Vines’ thumbprint was (and is) deeply embedded there. I can only imagine there is still a cadre of senior officers who can point back to Vines as their chief mentor.

Second, McChrystal discusses the fact that many of the most professional, courageous, and competent special operators he knew and served with were not all that different from the adversaries he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not that different,” in the sense that they too were wholly committed to a cause and willing to die for it. They were stoic, dedicated, and professional. It is refreshing to hear this from someone of McChrystal’s stature. Too often, our enemies or adversaries are simply dismissed as maniacal or incompetent. No one wants to give credit to an adversary, but in refusing to do that we blind oursevles to reality. McChrystal says that it is by “accident of birth” that he – and others like him – are on this side of the battle.

And finally, when asked to recommend a book, McChrystal recommended the classic Once an Eagle.

Still haven’t read it.

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Reflection, the “basics,” and role modeling as mentorship: General Votel on FtGN podcast

My podcast diet is out of control. There’s so much good content and I add new podcasts to my “up next” list daily and mostly never get to them.

I have not listened to From the Green Notebook’s podcast until this morning. I’m a fan of General (Ret.) Votel, though, and when I saw that he was the interviewee for episode 1/season 2 of their podcast, I decided to give it a shot.

Great podcast with lots of insight! I like the duo approach to the interview and especially appreciated Joe’s questions – most of which bypassed thoughts on grand strategy or comments on current operations, but instead focused on “how” a leader like General Votel manages himself.

Those types of questions are often avoided when senior military leaders are interviewed.

I’ve captured some of the excerpts that resonated with me below.

On the importance of setting aside time for reflection:

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

They go on to talk about the importance of conversation and deep-dives as reflection.

This struck me, because I think when people hear the term “reflection” or building time to reflect – especially in a senior leader context, they envision the leader sitting along in his or her office, staring out the window and pondering the great questions of life.

I don’t know anyone who does that. Hearing General Votel couch reflection as a process of conversation, however, resonated with me. I know that I do my best reflection when I’m engaged in some other activity – exercise, free-wheeling conversation, or just watching a movie or playing a video game. Thoughts come to me and being away from the problem – whatever it is – provides the space for that reflection.

Discussing the similarities and differences of serving as the Commander of JSOC/SOCOM/CENTCOM:

“When it comes to leadership, the basics matter.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

This is so true.

Earlier in my career, a General officer I worked for was adamant that everything you need to know about serving in the Army you learn in your first three years – from there it’s just refinement. I believe that. Yes, there are skills that you pick up along the way that take time – but the things that matter – those basics – you learn them early. If you can learn them, reinforce them, and grow, that’s how you get really good.

Another great question from Joe:

“Sir, you mentioned when you were talking about your emotions, you talked about shock…. and as leaders, we don’t always get the news that we thought we were going to get, and we still have to lead through that. Thinking back on those days in December [Syria withdrawal decision], was there anything that you did inparticular, like go in an office and shut the door, or sit down and write something down in your notebook to collect your thoughts? You had to quickly get over that shock to lead throught it.”

Joe Byerly (emphasis mine)

I love that question. “What did you actually do?” Not in terms of the decision you made or grand plan that unfurled, but as a human, what did you do in response to that? We’re all human after all – even combatant commanders.

On role modeling (and observation) as mentorship:

“I have a tendency to think about mentorship not so much as just ‘mentorship,’ but I have a tendency to think of it as role modeling – ‘role modeling-ship’ for example. To me, that has been the most influential thing in my military career – is watching how other people have handled things and internalizing that.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

General Votel goes on to discuss how observing can teach you what to do and what not to do. True.

Towards the end (about 34:00 minute mark), Joe raises a great question about books or “scenes” that stick with you as a way to think about the military profession – especially as it relates to going to war. He goes on to talk about a scene from the book Gates of Fire that symbolizes leaving the family man behind as you go off to war and only bringing the military man – the one who can “kill another human being.”

It’s a great frame for a question, and it reminded me of these old CTG posts (going to the “dark place” and “why we fight.”)

And now I’m a subscriber!

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe there as well.

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