By Peyton Holtz
Last summer, I spent some time with an incredible group of elite professionals from across the mountain-tactical world. They were all well out of my league—more talented, more accomplished, more mature, and more professional than I will likely ever be.
As part of our introductions to one another for the weekend, the group facilitator grilled us on our resumes.
When it came around to me, he dug-in about my stated commitment to “ruthlessly protecting my own integrity” a line from the personal statement in my civilian resume.
“What does that mean?” … should have been a simple question to answer, but embarrassingly, I struggled to muster much of one, despite believing very deeply in those words.
As I fumbled to provide a coherent and meaningful answer, he asked, “don’t you think that’s just self-righteous?”
Though I pulled through the session (or more likely was just let off the hook) that question would weigh on my mind for months to come. Was I just self-righteous?
To this point in my professional career, the way I assimilate into new units and onto new teams has become predictable, and I know well that I am an acquired taste.
At first, most everyone will think I am somewhere on the spectrum between overconfident and an absolute, arrogant asshole. Sometime down the road, usually after a little-shared hardship or some collective peak experience, most will change their minds about me….although few ever really warm up.
Way back when I used to believe that others were wrong for not being more objective; that these so-called professionals were too emotional and clearly cared too much about the careful application of social lubricant and too little about just being professional and getting things done.
One day, in a completely unrelated context somewhere in Afghanistan, I got the best professional advice I have ever gotten. The First Sergeant of my Ranger Company said to me:
“Sir, if you walk into one bar where everyone’s an asshole, and you leave and go to a second bar where everyone’s an asshole, and then you leave and go to a third bar where everyone’s an asshole…maybe YOU’RE the asshole.”
He really wasn’t talking about me at the time, but 1SG J’s words struck a chord deep inside of me, and have continually proven wise in myriad of circumstances. As I look back now, nearing the mid-point of my career, I think it’s useful to reflect on my own struggle, and perhaps growth, as I’ve proceeded on this bar crawl and battled a tendency to be pretty damn self-righteous.
Before I get into the details, I should be clear about what I mean by self-righteous.
We’d all likely agree that humility is an important character trait for leaders…or for anyone that we’d care to be around. I think that we would mostly agree that the opposite of humility is pride, or in extremis, arrogance. Those are importantly different from self-righteousness for me though. Self-righteousness can be a much more subtle albeit more cancerous problem. Most that know me would tell you that I can come off as arrogant, but not necessarily because I think I am more talented or smarter…it’s something different, and those same people would have a hard time describing what it really is.
That’s the self-righteousness.
I’ve tried to be proactive about recognizing that others are talented, intelligent, etc., and so have considered myself humble by most definitions.
But I sometimes slip into a notion that my foundations are nobler than theirs: that I am more dutiful, more loyal, more honest, more sacrificial, et. al. From that same deeply seeded drive inside of me that has made me successful by all accounts, also wells up a subtle sense of superiority…and that’s what rubs people.
It’s not a lack of humility in terms of my capabilities or the results that I can achieve; I will admit openly that I am average at best. It’s the by-product of the deeply seeded principles that I have developed and rely on, and that by-product is often corrosive.
Now let me show you how:
West Point Cadet
A guy named Chong was then Cadet Holtz’s first academic year roommate at West Point, and he struggled as a cadet to say the very least. He was from Saipan, and faced all the struggles that one would expect for a young man who had never left that small island and now found himself in a pretty difficult place to be successful. Beyond the burdens that came with drawing near-constant negative attention from upperclassmen—mostly just because he was an easy target as a non-native English speaker—Chong struggled academically, despite the efforts of many peers who tried relentlessly to help him succeed.
At the end of our Plebe year, Chong had failed one class during each academic semester and was being considered for dismissal from the academy (there is no time in a Cadet’s academic schedule to repeat two classes before the next academic year begins). During the separation process, one our classmates came to our room when Chong was away and asked me to sign a petition on Chong’s behalf; one that essentially plead the case for what a hard worker and solid teammate Chong was. It said that we thought enough of him to share a foxhole in combat and to that he ought to have another chance to succeed, even if that meant being turned-back a year.
I not only refused to sign that petition, but I spent the next little while crafting a scathing email to my company mates rebuking them for their immature and unprofessional action. How could they think that their assessment of Chong was more important than the standards that had been developed and tried through more than 200 years at the Academy? How were we to justify allowing Chong to one day lead Soldiers when he couldn’t meet the basic standards of maintaining a C average? Shouldn’t he be appropriately held to the standard and subject to the consequences of inadequacy? I was committed to developing into the leader that the system intended to create, and committed to suffering the consequences of inadequacy should I be found wanting. Why weren’t they? Clearly, my classmates were immature assholes, and I was happy to get away from them and move on to a more dutiful crowd on active duty.
Fast forward about ten years. Captain Holtz reported to Ft. Bragg to the unit in which he hoped to soon command. The battalion to which I reported was very near its next rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, and I would travel within days to go to train as a member of our battle staff at the Leader Training Program. This was my first interaction with our command and our staff. Many of the primary staff were my peers as young Captains; all fresh out of our various specialty “advanced” courses.
Our Intelligence Officer (S2), Nick, was one of those Captains, and along with most of the others, Nick followed the aforementioned pattern of meeting and assimilating me to the unit—Nick undoubtedly came down closer to the asshole end of the spectrum in his initial sizing-up of me. We received our first operation order when arrived to LTP; it was a division order and was probably more than 100 pages in total. I—being the consummate professional that I am—read every word of it that first night.
In our first briefing to the battalion commander, Nick briefed his intelligence estimate for the fictitious, Russian-like, tank-driving enemy that would be our foe for the planning exercise. The problem was that Nick’s estimate and conclusions were way-off. Me, being the selfless servant and dutiful staff officer that I was, could not let the briefing go on…it would obviously put Paratroopers in grave danger if I allowed our commander to move forward in his attempt to understand the problem and to make decisions if he did so with incorrect information. So, I did the right thing…I spoke up. I corrected Nick, and pointed out that he had misunderstood the composition of the enemy element, and noted that the actual enemy would present a much more significant threat to us. And, after presenting an enemy assessment that would have made Sun Tzu proud, I went on to offer some courses of action for defeating the tanks.
This interaction with Nick has been a pretty typical scene for me for the first bit of my career. I do genuinely believe that in our profession, there can be little room for continuing to make decisions or take action based on incorrect information. In my own spheres of influence, I have encouraged everyone to be comfortable “calling it out.” What I can see from my literal or proverbial “foxhole” may be different than what someone else sees, and it’s important for each of us to paint the whole picture for the whole team.
But I’ve also learned that timing and the approach matter, and have spent some time relearning that few care how much you know until they know how much you care. Being a douche bag and putting people on blast is probably never the right answer. Also, I’ve learned that just because someone makes a mistake or doesn’t seem as outwardly motivated as me, doesn’t mean that they hate America or don’t value the lives of our Soldiers. My sense of duty and loyalty is not automatically superior to theirs, so I shouldn’t suppose that I am somehow more committed, and treat them as if they aren’t.
Now in the twilight of my Captaincy and having successfully completed two company commands, I am still grinding forward my journey towards quiet professionalism. I was recently offered a job as a General’s Aide for a phenomenal leader with a lifetime of warfighting experience; a guy Soldiers tend to really like and trust, and one whom my most important mentors trust and respect immensely.
I went to interview for the job several months ago, and along with a number of interview questions was asked, “why don’t you want this job?” My response to the question was pretty simple: “Well sir, I have never really been the Courtney Massengale type, I’d rather stay down serving with the men, and in the end wouldn’t want anyone to think I have made my way based on anything but my own merits.”
I had considered how I would answer that question before I went for the interview, and even as I gave my answer thought it a pretty good response; one that was representative of a guy who came from very little and just wants to get it done alongside America’s heroes. Afterwards, though, I could hear those same words that had challenged me last June: “Isn’t that just self-righteous?”
The fact was that a really solid leader was offering a world of development to some young captain that a few other leaders thought was worth investing in, and yet I had the balls to basically say, “thanks sir, but I am too proud to live in your ivory tower and to carry your backpack around—I’ll make my own way.” Fortunately, my now-boss has seen a lot of young punks like me, and knew that getting me the right development now would allow me to serve better for years to come, so he hired me despite my immature response.
In a signed copy of Mark Twight’s book, Kiss or Kill, he inscribed these words: “First resolution; then revolution; finally, evolution.” Based on my experience on this proverbial bar crawl, I seem to be running into fewer assholes, and that seems to me a measure of progress because I think it means I am becoming less of an asshole. If nothing else, I am at least getting better at detecting my own self-righteous bullshit earlier.
It took me years to admit that I was wrong about the Chong thing; months to see that I was a dick to Nick; but only hours to know that my response to my future boss was ridiculous.
I think I can detect my own self-righteousness in near real-time these days, and though my wiring may never be completely rerouted, I can at least prep people to be able to laugh at me when I am on the wagon, and can react quickly to admit and apologize when I have gone down the dark path. I have resolved to be the quiet professional that Soldiers need, and thanks to a call-out from another mountain-tactical pro the revolution is well underway.
The Good Dude Factor
The “good dude factor” matters as a tactical professional.
People won’t follow an order that could get them killed if the guy or girl that gives it thinks that they are inherently right all the time…or that that their principles and adherence therefore makes them superior to everyone else. Soldiers…whoever…are professionals and they get that you have to make hard calls sometimes …but they want to know that you have calculated the risk and reward objectively, and haven’t come to a decision based on too much confidence in yourself.
One of my early bosses said it best: ours is a serious profession with grave consequences; you should always take your responsibility seriously…but never yourself.
About the Author:
Peyton Holtz is an Army Infantry Officer currently serving at Ft. Bragg, NC.
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