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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“Just In Time” Information Management

Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.

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Company-Grade to Field-Grade: Introducing “Making the Switch”

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jordan, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment

Tell me this isn’t true.

“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.”

Company-Grade to Field-Grade: Introducing “Making the Switch” | by CoCMD & PLT LDR | Leadership Counts! | Apr, 2021 | Medium

What are the things that junior officers should be doing as they get ready to make the switch to field grade officer?

I’m looking for answers to the following questions.

For current (or retired) field grade officers:

  1. What do you wish you knew before becoming a field-grade officer?
  2. What skills do you wish you developed before becoming a field-grade-officer?

For current junior officers:

  1. What do you want to know about becoming a field-grade officer?
  2. What perplexes you about making the switch?
  3. What rumors do you want confirmed/squashed?

For NCOs:

  1. What do you expect from field-grade officers that is different from company-grade officers?

I love this topic and I think there is a lot we can learn here. I’m looking for help. Please contact me if you have insight or would like to contribute.

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This is going to end my career

I’m a new subscriber to the Jumo Brief. In the most recent newsletter, Brennan recounts a time he left his flight jacket in his office and thought it would end his career.

Of course, it didn’t end my career. It didn’t even matter a week later. I was just a dumb lieutenant doing dumb lieutenant things. But it didn’t feel like it at the time.

Jumo Brief

This is such a common thought in the Army. Some miniscule mistake is going to be the thing that ends it all.

I’ve thought that before, and I know most others have.

When I actually think back on it, I can’t really think of any specific instances where this was true. In fact, the opposite is mostly true. I see plenty of leaders making small mistakes and things working out okay.

A mistake is made, there may be some consequence (or not), and learning occurs (hopefully).

Of course, there is a difference between small mistakes (forgetting a flight jacket) and catastrophic mistakes – the types of things that gets people hurt or killed, due to negligence.

A lot of mental energy is wasted in the Army worrying about small mistakes and their potential to be the thing that derails a career. The more I reflect on it though, the more I realize I haven’t actually seen it much.

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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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“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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The counter influence operations safety brief

I was listening to a recent podcast of The Cognitive Crucible featuring Dr. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute where they were discussing the challenge of foreign influence operations in the smartphone era. Specifically, they were discussing the fact that our service members are active target audiences of foreign adversaries, and this manifests mostly online.

To date, there have not been a lot of great suggestions on how to combat this. The most common recommendation is some version of digital literacy traning with modules that would discuss things like foreign influence operations, source checking, and bias. This sounds good – and honestly, it might be one of the only things we can do – but if the only thing we do is add another annual yearly training, my gut tells me this will fail.

Off the cuff, one of the participants in the podcast brought up the standard formation speech, and how odd it must be for a commander to have to address his or her formation and warn about foreign influence operations that are targeting them through their smartphones. Put that way, it sounds kind of conspiratorial, but we know it’s real.

Which got me wondering: are commanders out there discussing this with their formations?

Certaintly these things are known and discussed in the special operations community, but what about the rest of the military?

I’ve never been a big fan of the weekend safety brief – as both the guy in the back standing ‘at ease’ and the guy up front doing the best he can. They can sometimes seem disingenuous, often just a list of the things that need to be discussed to ensure everyone was warned.

On the other hand, the formation speech is a powerful platform for a commander to make a claim and empahsize what is important. If done well, this can have a tremendous impact. I can think back on formation speeches from twenty years ago that have stuck with me. One of my Battalion Commander’s ended every speech with “Take care of your three feet of space,” a maxim that kind of wraps up everything in eight words. Frequency, by the way, is an important tool in getting your point across. Say it, say it again, and keep saying it – the more mediums, the better.

Discussing a list of all the ways a soldier can hurt themselves or get in trouble will likely be ignored.

But what if instead of that list, a commander just spoke about foreign influence operations for a few minutes? Would that have an effect?

I don’t think it would change much, but I’ve also been repeatedly surprised by the things that I assume everyone in a formation knows, only to later learn they only just learned it after myself or someone else informed them in some innocuous way.

And at the very least, it would be informative. The military faces a litany of challenges every day, both internal and external. Foreign influence operations are one of them. We don’t have all of the solutions (and likely won’t ever have all the solutions), but just like everything in the militay, commanders play a key role. The way that a commander communicates about this specific challenge could have an impact.

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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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