Jello molds

When I was an attaché in the field, I worked for a Navy officer.  Let’s call him “Stan.”  Have you ever poked at a jello mold and seen that it wobbles around for a little bit, but then quickly returns to its natural state?  Stan was exactly like that – no matter how many times you jostled him, he always reverted, never changing shape, never able to be further molded.  That was my boss Stan: you’d talk to him, meet with him, offer advice and suggestions and you’d get the north-south head nods and would walk away feeling like you really accomplished something and two minutes later, it was back to the same ol’ Stan, firmly entrenched in his ways.  And you really couldn’t blame the guy, after all, he had enjoyed “success” with his methodology of following the aforementioned Two Commandments.  He had commanded several times, had been promoted to the rank of Captain in the Navy, and now served as Defense Attaché in a large embassy in a key allied country.  On paper, Stan was a success.  In practice, however, he was a failure, especially when it concerned the care of his subordinates.  You see, Stan ascribed to the simple adage of the Golden Principle of Self-Servitude Leadership:


  “If it affects me personally, then I care.  If not, then I don’t.”  


Seen it before in leaders?  Doesn’t sound overly egregious, does it?  But let me ask you this: what is a leader?  There are a billion definitions, my personal favorite is Peter Drucker’s simple but brilliant “a leader is someone who has followers.”  I like to look at it like: “what do I need from my superior?”  In that guise, it boils down to basically this simple formula: I need a leader to do these 4 things:


– Provide strategic direction,


– Ensure I am adequately trained, resourced and equipped,


– Allow me freedom of maneuver, 


– Provide top-cover (in Army speak: shit-deflect)


And that’s about it.  Simple in principle, far more difficult in practice, as I’m sure most of you have witnessed.  And it should be even easier if you are in charge of a handful of experienced officers, for instance, the Defense Attaché Office I was assigned to, which, at the time, was composed of six officers, all of whom had served with distinction for an average of 20+ years in the military.  The problem is, as a leader, you still need to lead.  The military, and most every other hierarchical organization, is predicated on the leader’s ability to lead.  And the more capable and experienced your subordinates are, the more you need a strong leader.  This, at first blush, may sound counterintuitive: the more capable your subordinates are as leaders, the better a leader the boss has to be?  It’s true though, because when you have a power vacuum, that void will be naturally filled.  And if you have a handful of Type A’s in the organization, they are going to fill that leadership void and that power-grab is a recipe for confusion and conflict.  That’s not to say that they are power-hungry or egotistical, it is only to say it is just their nature, especially as an officer in the military, to provide leadership where none exists.  Right out of the lessons of the battlefield from the past thousand years: the commander’s been killed, second-in-command: you have the guidon!  The point is, in any hierarchical organization, a leader is fooling themselves if they think the outfit can be a self-cleaning oven.  There’s also the added dynamic that sometimes, people need help and advocacy; life just happens.  And the only person that is in the position and has the authority to go to bat for their people, is the designated leader of the organization.  A colleague of mine was trying to get into the country to start his new job as a peer attaché.  The visa process was being stalled, so he went to his soon-to-be-boss: Stan.  What did Stan do?  Nothing.  He then doubled down and blamed my colleague himself for the delays.  A banal example, but a telling one nonetheless.  “Doesn’t affect me personally? Delete!”


Across DIA, there were “Stans” everywhere (as my good friend RJ coined): “exuding all the leadership of a duck bobbing on water,” prancing about with an aiguillette on, enjoying being the bell of the ball whilst (seemingly) staying under the DIA radar (and, of course, not rocking the boat!).  Those people had subordinates and some of those subordinates ended up in DIA’s crosshairs.  What did many of the Stan’s of the world do in those instances?  Refer to The Golden Principle above.