Below are essays from the MTI Community. These essays explore the lessons learned from a part of a series we called “worst leaders”.
Fakers, Fighters, and Appeasers
By Thomas W.
Exposed to 18 bosses in the military thus far, I have come to classify each new leader across a spectrum of three attributes: faker, fighter, and appeaser.
Fakers live to look good on paper and leave no administrative task outstanding. Fighters yearn for more field time to become masters of military maneuvers. Appeasers, on the other hand, plant one foot in both camps in an overtaxing attempt to be good at everything.
Although all plot somewhere across the range, no designation proves better than another. Rather, I have learned common attributes like optimism, adaptability, and communicating purpose separate the best and worst leaders regardless of location on the scale.
Bad leaders prove the need to chase success rather than failure. Whether motivated to have the best maintenance readiness or training to achieve the highest marksmanship scores, bad leaders quickly get run down by the burden of too many priorities.
One past boss started each day going through the calendar to identify where the unit was going to fail, and deleting events that were not resourced. More than maintaining optimism in the face of too many tasks and too little time, a better approach is to identify where positive pressure can be applied to ensure success. Although a minor difference, the varied perspective changes how a leader communicates, where he or she focuses and has a big impact on how the organization sees itself.
A second lesson comes from the inability to choose our boss. Ineffective leaders are unable to adapt to their own boss, and allow rigid style to damper the mood across the entire organization – including those beneath them. For example, a fighter who cannot be persuaded to see eye to an eye with a faker boss often cannot help but question priorities. Concerned more about proper dismounted formations during a future training exercise, a fighter may never be persuaded to care about a supply room inspection valued by a faker (his boss). If unable to adapt, the friction between the two creates a negative attitude that magnifies as it reaches the lowest levels. Poor leaders who cannot nest priorities with those of their boss create additional stress for their organization.
My biggest takeaway from examples of bad leaders, though, is the importance of communicating purpose. While the best leaders motivate others by articulating a vision of success, the worst leaders get it wrong. Two recurring problems I witness are leaders who are a moving target, and those whose rhetoric does not match action.
In the first case, a boss rallies the troops as a faker one week, only to drive forward as a fighter the next. Without a clear understanding of what to expect, junior leaders are left guessing what matters from day to day.
An example of the latter problem is a leader who uses a fighter’s motivation—like being ready for war—to motivate performance as a faker. Because there is a mix-match of why work is important with what we do, these leaders create a poor environment where threats and words like compliance take the place of motivation.
Poor leaders have taught me that there is nothing wrong with being a fighter, faker, or an appeaser. The best leaders are simply honest in identifying where they plot, provide optimism, adapt to how their boss’ style, and communicate purpose that aligns with what they care about.
Lessons in Respect
By Trevor L.
He did not respect us. We did not respect him.
This supervisor had poor communication skills. His instructions were consistently inaccurate, vague, and incomplete.
Our work was never commented on until we messed up, – then we’d hear his criticism.
He was strange, unhappy, impatient, and happy to tell us how we “disappointed” him on a daily basis. His negatively infected to the entire crew like a bad cough.
His refusal to follow standard operating procedures resulted in more than one “close call.” During falling and bucking operations he wouldn’t notify subordinates when bucking trees, thus sending hot, burning rounds downhill for us to avoid. He repeatedly made this mistake. Luckily no one was ever injured or worse.
He once ordered us to do unneeded work in poison oak and often made the crew work excessive hours “off the clock.” These and other events led to unnecessary injuries, lost work time, worker’s compensation claims, and 75% of his subordinates leaving for other jobs.
He taught me attitude is everything. Now I strive to show up to work every day with a positive, vibrant attitude and driven accomplish and achieve.
His bad example taught me to always let a good example by consistently doing high-quality work.
I have also learned to treat everyone as I would like to be treated – that includes communicating up and down the chain of command while praising subordinates for good work and providing constructive feedback for things that can be done better.
Most importantly, I learned that to earn respect, you must first give it.
Don’t Cry …
By Michael M.
We had been underway for only a couple of weeks when the ‘boss’ called us into his office at about 0030. He had his ball cap pulled down to his nose, but you could still see his red, swollen eyes as if he had already been crying.
He never looked up as he began his ‘motivational’ talk, or as we called it, the ‘save the department head’s butt’ speech.
I was the department’s leading chief petty officer and although I had been on active duty for more than 15 years, it was my first deployment to the Persian Gulf. Although the three senior leaders within the department had less years leading than I did, I was excited to work alongside an experienced chief and almost 40 highly qualified Sailors.
The department head explained how he had already screwed up and was literally begging us to help him ‘look good’ so he would not lose his job. He reminded us that two other carrier department heads, in his position, were fired for similar circumstances and he did not want to be next.
He told us how all he ever wanted to do in the Navy was to make captain. It seemed like everything he said was about him and how we had to step up and do our jobs or else…or else what?
The room was silent—except for his sobbing—as we all shook our heads in unison and looked at each other in disbelief at what just happened. On the other hand, it did not ‘just’ happen. As with almost all meetings we had, this one lasted for more than an hour—an hour we never got back.
The other chief and I went into our office—the ‘Goat Locker’—and shut the door. As with most departments onboard a carrier, we worked around the clock and did not want the night shift Sailors hear us discussing what happened.
Despite the department head’s plea for help, we did not alter our plan in the least bit. It was going to be an arduous deployment and we were facing an uphill battle, as we would be undergoing some major changes before we returned to our homeport.
When we left our homeport, we had almost 40 Sailors, from four different ‘rates’ or job fields, who were spread out across several departments. During the deployment, the four rates would merge into one rate and we would establish a new department. We would be the ‘model’ for the others and would literally be writing the SOP (standard operating procedure) for the future of our rate and department.
After that meeting, the department head was rarely seen in our workspaces. It appeared as though he was doing everything he could to save his butt by pandering to the strike group commander, the commanding officer, and other senior leaders. The only real communication we had with him was through notes he would leave for us, an occasional email, and constant orders issued via shipboard radios or ‘bricks’ as they were called.
Despite his lack of leadership on so many levels, we successfully navigated the merger and department establishment; we were the highest producing department from all other carriers; our Sailors achieved nearly all of their goals and were highly recognized; and we did it while downsizing by more than 50 percent!
Lessons learned included—not breaking down in front of your peers; not begging for help, but leading from the front; active vice passive communication; there really is no ‘I’ in team; and despite ‘bad’ leadership, good leadership and teamwork can still prevail!
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