Admiral Anderson on military life, intuition, and the calamity of leadership

Originally published in 2013.

I jumped back into Mass Effect today to play the Citadel DLC and was inspired by some of the things in this interview between a journalist and Admiral David Anderson. I’ve pulled out the parts I found the most interesting.

Whoever wrote this is spot on. For all of the military training we have, things often come down to instincts. Thousands of years of warfare there for us to study, to inform our training, but instinct is still the thing that sits there at the unforgiving minute, the last hundred yards.

And isn’t that the truth concerning the terrible burden of leadership? How horrible is it that we ask our military leaders to choose the mission over the men, and to carry that cross for the rest of their lives?

But then, is war not terrible? I love how Admiral Anderson makes that final statement. To me, it is a critique on war, and a warning to avoid it at all costs, because there truly are no winners, just better-off losers.

Journalist: Does the program make the man, or do you think you were born for this?

It is a bit of both I suppose. Every soldier reaches a point in their career, sometimes more than once, when they are asked to give more than they ever thought they could. That moment is the test. I’ve seen men and women almost sure to fail, persevere long past the point of breaking. That experience changes them. Others, with all the gifts and abilities, fail in that moment. Sometimes they pick themselves up and carry on, sometimes, they’re just done.

JournalistDo you trust your intuition? Do you follow your heart or your mind?

No, I suppose if I were to be honest, I do trust my instincts. The problem is… war isn’t orderly. And the enemy is never predictable. Even the most experienced veteran is going to find themselves in situations they haven’t trained for. In those instances – and there is more than I’d like to admit – your instincts are the only thing keeping you alive. That, and the men and women you’re fighting aside.

Journalist: But soldiers are only as good as their leader, isn’t that true?

Yeah, a good leader can make an ‘ok’ squad great. And a bad leader, well, war tends to make examples of them.

Journalist: What makes a good leader then?

Hm… a good leader is someone who values the life of his men over the success of the mission, but understands that sometimes, the cost of failing a mission is higher than the cost of losing those men.

JournalistThat’s a terrible line to have to walk.

Yes it is. But war is a terrible thing.

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Enjoy waking up early, be in good shape: the secret to a happy military life

Note: Originally published in 2016, but still true.

Two seemingly enduring aspects of military life are the tenets that starting things unnaturally early is best, and physical fitness is paramount. Failing to master these two things makes military life more miserable than it needs to be.

As a new private, first call was a dreaded affair. It was the time that my Team Leader or Squad Leader banged on my barracks room door in the morning to get me out of bed and ready for physical training. On most mornings first call was 0600. I tried my best to set my alarm to 0555 to get the jump on the NCOs and get into the shared latrine a few minutes before the rush of sleepy, grumpy soldiers. Most mornings, though, I let my NCO be my alarm clock so I could get the most sleep possible.

Within 25 minutes of waking up, I’d be standing in formation waiting to be subjected to whatever physical training my Squad Leader could dream up – in this case, usually a fast, long run up and down Fort Bragg’s firebreaks.

The combination of being forced to get up early and thrust into physical training makes mornings miserable for many soldiers.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the idea that the military is going to make me get up early, just about every day. Instead of resisting this and trying to eek out a little bit more sleep by waking up at the absolute last-minute, I’ve shifted my wake up time far to the left, waking up at an ungodly hour that insulates me from having to rush. This means having to go to bed early, but that is usually something I can control.

I’ve grown to not only make waking up at an early time a habit, even on the weekends, but I’ve come to enjoy the mornings more than any other time of the day because it is truly my time. What I do with it is completely up to me.

When it comes to physical training, taking responsibility for your own fitness ensures you can go to work feeling reasonably confident that you can handle whatever physical training you are forced to do.

Much of the misery that soldiers endure are connected to these two things – sleep and fitness. Waking up early and enjoying it together with staying in good physical condition can make military life a whole lot easier.

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In the military, it’s hard to say “I don’t know”

Disrupting enemy activity

In the dozens of daily interactions military personnel have with one another, the phrase “I don’t know” is rarely heard.

It’s not that everyone in the military is so smart or well-read, it’s mostly a fear of admitting that one doesn’t know what he or she thinks she is supposed to know.

I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Standing in a hallway with a colleague talking about an upcoming training event or plan, I’ve nodded dutifully to a barrage of acronyms or concepts that I’m hardly familiar with.

Military terminology is so laden with jargon, acronyms, clichés, and buzzwords it is a small miracle when any information gets passed along at all.

Most officers can attest to a time some piece of information came across on a radio transmission or a phone call on speaker, and instead of responding immediately looks up to those around him mouthing “What did he say?”

We don’t want to admit ignorance to a subordinate because by virtue of our positional authority we are expected to know more.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our peers because we are supposed to be of equal knowledge, experience, and ability.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our superiors out of fear of seeming incompetent and losing trust.

The paradox of this fear is that in most instances it is refreshing to all parties to admit “I don’t know” or to ask the question “Wait, what does the mean?”

Asking a subordinate to clarify an elusive idea or concept gives him the opportunity to explain it in full to his boss. He gets the practice in unpacking the idea and the boss gains better understanding.

Stopping a peer from a barrage of acronyms to get clarification allows her to demonstrate mastery of memorizing another military acronym – a small military feat. That acronym, though, might be the one key to understanding the idea of what is being communicated. The peer will likely enjoy the small kick in dopamine for clearly knowing just a little bit more.

Seeking clarification from a superior on his insistence in hammering a clichĂ© or buzzword allows him to explain exactly what he wants while demonstrating that you -the subordinate- are actually interested in understanding. While it might not be true in all cases, most bosses don’t want blind compliance after a brief; they want true understanding and buy-in. Initial concepts might come out dry and loaded with military-speak. Saying that you don’t understand and seeking clarification gives the speaker the opportunity to try again in regular language, outside of the scope of formal speech.

Admitting “I don’t know” has a powerful effect in an organization. Once one person starts doing it, the doors are opened towards others admitting they don’t know either. Instead of a room full of automatons complying with an order they don’t understand, it becomes acceptable to admit ignorance and subsequently gain understanding.

It’s actually a wonderfully refreshing thing to see someone you respect in your organization admit they don’t know what an acronym means or the concept behind a oft-said piece of jargon. As hard as it might be, try it out next time.

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