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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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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