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?’”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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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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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