Redefining the win
We’ve talked about the progress that has been made in the last two years and the change that has been incited in the Agency as a result of the work we’ve done. However, that is, as we say in the pilot business: “a 30,000-foot view;” a macro-level look at what’s transpired. What is missed when at this “height” is seeing the daily and weekly grind: the setbacks, the disappointments, the frustration, the disillusionment. If you have followed the sequence of events of the DIA case, you have likely come across more than a few junctures where you said, just as I did, “surely, someone will act now.” So many times in the last two years, I found myself thinking the hammer was finally going to fall. And then…nothing. This cycle repeated over and over again and wore down my drive as well as my morale. The tightrope I walked, especially with Congress, was to strike the right tone, coming across as assertive and convicted in the cause, but not so much that I would alienate them by becoming too pesky or emotional. I, of my own admission, pushed that envelope in one particular meeting in early December 2021, where I was on a conference call with my Representative’s staffers. We were discussing some updates to the case and their interlocutors in the House Armed Services Committee and House Intel Committee (HPSCI) had ghosted them, having gone comm-out on them for the past month. I was fed up. My closing remarks to the staff were “OK, I’m not going to keep doing the Congress’ work here – they have enough to act on. If you’re going to take it for action, cool, take it. If not, just let me know and I’ll stop spinning my wheels here.” The reaction resembled very much the one from “How not to do things”: I got, almost right from the internet company script: “Yes, Lieutenant Colonel Sweazey, we understand how this can be frustrating…”. I was being placated! I knew I had lost my audience – they went into complaining-constituent-deflect mode! Through a serendipitous series of events, to include the publication of the WSJ article, I didn’t lose the momentum for long, but had that not happened, I think I may have shot myself in the foot that day.
During the first year of the case, I (naively) thought that I, armed with facts and data and witnesses, could influence the powers that be. I thought rampant dysfunction in DIA would garner the attention of Congress, at a minimum the oversight bodies thereof. It didn’t. I thought the Armed Services would sit up and take notice when their members were reporting abuses occurring in DIA. They didn’t. I thought any Inspector General would look at the details of my case and substantiate the allegations in a heartbeat. None did. I thought that after the July 2021 report on toxicity in the DAS came out heads would roll in the Agency. They didn’t. Time and time and time again I thought “surely, someone will take action now!” and time and time and time again I was let down when the response was barely tepid and most times nonexistent.
Of course, a lot of that pivoted after the publication of the WSJ article. Suddenly, the Congress became engaged, suddenly the DIA Director was “concerned about the culture in DIA”, suddenly, issues raised in May of 2021 rose to the top of DIA’s priorities. I don’t want to come across as cynical here, but how could I not? One day before the WSJ article was published pretty much all the actors in play gave two veritable fucks about what I had done and what I was reporting, but the day after, blam-o!, now it’s a priority, a concern. It’s sad, really, but that’s reality, I guess.
Las Vegas hosts the largest tactical aviation exercise in the world: Red Flag. The staff there always preaches “Don’t fight the scenario!” meaning: there are rules and guidelines and restrictions, some of which are artificial and some silly, but regardless, the intent of the message is clear: accept the boundaries of the exercise and don’t expend energy in a fruitless endeavor to circumvent (or lament) the rules in place. Dealing with entities in D.C. is much like flying in Red Flag: you have to accept the environmentals of the battlespace: the inertia, the malaise, the laziness, the egos, the power-lust, the corruption, the slime (it is a swamp, after all!). I fell victim, admittedly, to fighting the scenario – thinking that one dude, although organized and in the right, could really bring about change in the face of such overpowering inertia. But this chapter is not to emphasize the painfully obvious fact that bureaucratic inertia in D.C. is potent and will squash any do-gooder’s initiatives. This is instead to talk about the significant misstep I made when first endeavoring on this journey, specifically, defining what “victory” meant.
Stephen Covey authored the famous book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” When I was a sophomore at the Air Force Academy, he came to speak to the entire cadet class. During that talk, he gave a demonstration which I have mimicked for others throughout my military career. It went something like this: Covey chose a cadet from the audience and asked him to join him on stage where there was a small table positioned along with two chairs. Covey and the cadet sat down at the table opposite each other and the speaker explained the rules of the game they were about to partake in. “The game is a simple arm-wrestling match. We will go for one minute. Whoever defeats their opponent wins a nickel. If there is a victor, we will restart and go again, so long as one minute has not elapsed. Questions?” Another cadet in the front row started their stopwatch and the two opponents began their duel. It was a closely-contested match, maybe the cadet won one and Covey won one, meaning each gentleman walked away with five cents. Then, Covey turned his microphone off, leaned over to the cadet, had a brief discussion with him, then turned his mic back on. “Ok,” Covey continued, “we are going to have a rematch. Same rules. Ready? Begin!” The opponents locked grips and began, although this time, instead of clashing in a stalemate, something totally unexpected happened: the cadet won almost immediately, with Covey limply relinquishing the victory. They reset. Covey immediately tallied a victory with the cadet relenting. This then repeated for a minute, both contestants having won over 25 matches each in that one-minute span. Brilliant, really. I wonder how many cadets in that audience would have arrived at that win-win solution…I know I wouldn’t have. This is the takeaway of this chapter and my lesson (re)learned: be conscious about how you go about defining the “win.” If it is framed as a zero-sum game, you stand a chance to lose and, just as was my case battling DIA and the Big G, a zero-sum proposition is almost assuredly going to result in an “L” for the home team (you).
I’m going to delve into a divergent reality for a minute here. Let’s rewind the clock back to February 18th, 2022, the day before the Wall Street Journal published the DIA exposé. Now let’s say the article never made it past the editors and died on the vine, never to see the light of day. Going into this case, I had essentially defined my win as this:
If the cabal is removed from power, I win
If the cabal remains in power, I lose
Even as I type this today, I can see not only the near-sightedness of my goal, but also the zero-sum proposition it was. I was the cadet and the cabal was Covey and we were sitting at the table for Match 1. Furthermore, I fell into the trap of defining victory based on the outcomes of others, another critical fallacy in most of our thinking. When Covey walked away that day back in 1997, he had over a dollar in winnings. Had he fought Match 2 as he did 1, he would have walked away with maybe a dime. You see now that his level of winnings had absolutely nothing to do with how much his opponent walked away with. Had they, in Match 2, see-sawed even faster, Covey stood to walk away with even more. Let’s say, just for grins, that we follow Covey to the bar after their arm-wrestling match. Had he left after the first match, he would have shown up, seen that he had a nickel, realized it wasn’t nearly enough to order that Diet Coke he wanted, and left. Do you think at that point, hours after the match, he would have said “yeah, I only have five cents to my name, but so does that cadet, so I kind of won!” Unlikely. Instead, he would have probably thought, “damn, I fought really hard and all I have to show for it is this nickel,” and gone home empty-handed…and thirsty. This is what happens when we define our victories around something or someone other than ourselves. Look again at the above victory conditions I had set for myself in the DIA case – they had nothing to do with me, and instead, everything to do with my “opponent.” Without altering that approach, I’d be at the metaphorical bar right now, with likely not even 5 cents in my pocket. Why? Not because I didn’t fight hard, not because I didn’t compete in the game with all that I could. It’s because I didn’t set the conditions for victory correctly. That’s the rub – when you compete in life, you make the “rules” – you establish what is a win and what isn’t, and those goals should be you-centric and never zero-sum. Ok, let’s call a “do-over.” Let’s rewind the clock even further back now to August 2020. I am about to hit send on the Congressional IG complaint.
What were my “wins”?
– Dethrone the cabal from power (“them”-centric)
– Initiate an independent Congressional inquiry (“them”-centric)
– Energize oversight entities to investigate wrongdoings in the Agency and IG (“them”-centric)
What should have been my “wins”?
– Highlight the dysfunction in the organization to incite more transparency / open dialogue (“me”-centric)
– Avail myself to help others in similar position as I (“me”-centric)
– Be an example for others to follow in my crusade (“me”-centric)
– Continue to be successful in my endeavors after the military (“me”-centric)
What’s glaringly obvious to me now (but wasn’t when I was in “attack mode”) was that my Goal Set 1 consisted of conditions that were completely out of my control. Set 2 were things I could do regardless of what my opponent was doing. Why did I fall into this trap? I think if you are a Type A competitor, you already know the answer: it is how we are born and also raised: see an opponent (opposing team, bully, etc.): defeat them. Whether it’s in sports or in war, we are brought up to “crush the opposition!” and there are most definitely times for that. I played hockey as a kid – we wouldn’t meet with the team beforehand and agree that both goalies would go take a nap so that each team would score 50 goals. The point is, there is a distinction between a sporting match and life – life is a long journey with a lot of matches and competitions. If everything along the way is “me versus the world” you burn out very quickly (and with very few wins in your pocket). I saw it in just this one “match” – for the better part of two years, I approached it as “Ryan Sweazey versus DIA,” and that clearly wasn’t sustainable and, in reality, never was “winnable” either. With time, I’ve come to realize I need to be playing by my rules with my win conditions, just like Covey’s second match: I keep doing what I need to do to be successful. What is my opponent doing? Who fucking cares – I’m too busy winning to notice!