The “Lazy Genius” Colonel Who Figured out How to Achieve Rank and Promotion by Doing the Minimum…and How I Allowed this to Happen

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

I didn’t coin the term, but when I heard it, I knew it was the perfect moniker to describe that Colonel in my organization (and others like him) who managed to do the minimum (or below the minimum) throughout his career, but still achieved rank and promotion.  

The Lazy Genius is about himself and not about the unit or the Soldiers he serves.  Instead of selflessly serving others, he is self-serving.  He’s a genius.  He’s achieved the same rank as the hard-working leaders focused on the mission and Soldiers, but he does the minimum…and gets away with it.

Traits of the Lazy Genius

First, he physically shows up only when it is absolutely necessary.  He’s sort of like Bigfoot…he’s seen enough around the office to remain semi-relevant.  As a program manager, he was required to attend higher level meetings twice a month, so you were guaranteed to see him every other week.  You would also see him occasionally for a block of instruction he was directed to teach over the course of several months, but those days were unpredictable as he only instructed on the days that were best for him.  

Also, he’ll draw out his time in the organization’s area of operations so that people see him, and his presence is noticed by as many people as possible.  He’s a time waster.  He’ll frequently engage others in meaningless conversations.  These others are typically junior to him in rank, so it’s hard for them to disengage.  His classic move was to sit in the outer office about an hour before lunch and draw into conversation those who were passing through, and a couple hours later he’d still be sitting there…and nothing productive was accomplished.

The Lazy Genius worries about things that are related to doing less work.  He’ll ask about the policies for leaves and passes, compensatory time, or leaving work early.  He raises these concerns to the unit’s leadership under the cover of asking for others, but he is really asking for himself.  The misperception is that he cares about others.  

He’s also not interested in improving his fighting position.  The status quo is fine in his eyes.   When pushed about his vision, goals, and endstate for the program he oversaw, he didn’t see a need for any change even though it had been several years since the program went through an assessment.  He wasn’t interested in making the organization better as this would require more than his minimum effort.

He pawns off work on subordinates to do less for himself.  When it comes to the allocation of assignments or tasks, he’ll do the minimum that is required of him.  If more is needed, his subordinates will typically pick up the slack.  When confronted with this, the Lazy Genius will shamelessly make the assertion that the subordinate is “OK” with the additional workload.  I witnessed this firsthand in the allocation of a certain assignment.  The Lazy Genius did not take this on, which he easily could have managed given his underwhelming workload.  This would have been a big lift for the organization.  Instead, due to his laziness and sense of entitlement, he said his 2IC would pick up the task…and further stated that his 2IC “wanted” to do this.  I stepped in and relieved this officer of the responsibility so as to not overwhelm him, and the assignment went unfilled.

Finally, the Lazy Genius is the “good idea fairy.”  He will offer solutions to problems that don’t exist, or he will generate random ideas that are not tied to any need or discussion.  He often will do this in meetings with department leadership that creates the impression in others that he is value-added.  Often, these ideas die because they are irrelevant.  However, when they do generate some further inquiry, the Lazy Genius is nowhere to be found and others are sent into a SPINEX to figure out how to proceed.  My personal favorite was when he offered an idea about how we accessed and acquired talent in the organization.  He offered his idea at the end of the hiring cycle, which resulted in un-necessary churn for the junior officers who managed the process.  It was frustrating.

Why the Lazy Genius Exists and the Impact on the Organization

The Lazy Genius existed in an organization I was a part of because I allowed it to happen.  While I wasn’t THE senior leader OF the unit, I was A senior leader IN the unit.  Therefore, I owned some of the responsibility to hold this officer accountable, and I did not.  

His actions ticked me off.  He was the same rank as me, was making the same money as me, had the same privileges as me…but I was working my ass off while he was doing the minimum.  Again, he was a genius…and I did nothing about it.   

This failure to confront and hold him accountable on my part is one reason a Lazy Genius exists – that is, the lack of peer leadership.  Peers can’t be cowards.  I addressed the situation with my boss, talked to other peers about the officer and how to work around him, and talked to subordinates about how to lead up.  But I never specifically addressed the officer himself.  There is no good reason other than I didn’t feel it was worth the energy, the time, and it wouldn’t change anything.  In short, I was not a good peer leader.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that an outright confrontation would have solved the problem.  In fact, I’m convinced it would not have, and he would only try to ignore me or avoid me.  His behaviors weren’t new and clearly existed before he ever got to our organization, so a simple face-to-face wasn’t the silver bullet.  It should have been nipped in the bud long before he ever made Colonel.

At the end of the day, this lack of accountability is the main reason that a Lazy Genius is allowed to grow and prosper in units.  The organizational response to this should be “Leadership 101” – lay out initial expectations, conduct performance counseling, provide remediation and a plan for improvement if expectations are not met, and relieve/fire if he never meets the goals and guidelines laid out for him.  It’s the same for junior leaders as it is for senior leaders, but all too often we let senior leaders slide. 

Ironically, in my organization, we prided ourselves on good leadership, yet we preferred to allow this Colonel to continue to underperform as an officer, a leader, and a director for no other reason than we wanted to avoid confrontation.  In fact, at one point, the officer asked for a letter of recommendation as he competed for another job elsewhere on the installation, and the organization’s senior leader gave him one because he “didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

The impact is that such behavior now becomes condoned, and it manifests itself in the behavior of other senior officers.  More problematic is that junior officers now needed to lead up, work around the Lazy Geniuses, and pick up the workload.  The drag on morale is significant, which leads to a lack of trust in the organization’s senior leadership.  

The fact is that I have been the senior leader in units where the Lazy Genius existed in officers and NCOs under my command.  Unfortunately, my recollection is that more often than not, I didn’t address it.  As I reflect on this, it goes back to some of the traits I listed above – doing just enough to remain relevant, the portrayal of being valued, offering random ideas at just the right time, etc.  I didn’t have enough counseling to fire these individuals, or I didn’t want to invest the time and energy to hold them accountable even though I knew there was an issue.  Energy is finite.  For my part, as the boss, I chose to expend the energy elsewhere.  That wasn’t always a good call.

In short, the Lazy Genius is not conducive to organizational effectiveness and good unit culture.  He is poisonous.  The ultimate billpayer when we allow sub-standard leaders like the Lazy Genius to continue to matriculate through the Army is the American Soldier.  That alone should make us do something about it!

 

Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.

 


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