“I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.”
- Xeones, speaking about Leonidas, king of Sparta, after the battle of Thermopylae – From “Gates of Fire,” by Steven Pressfield
All of the precepts of leadership are listed above. Embrace this ethos, and your organization will be on its way to doing great things. Reject it, and the road ahead will be strewn with disappointment and strife. Before we tackle this specific point, let’s take a step back and get our bearings.
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how and why organizations fail. We talked about myths of success and cultures of failure. We talked a bit about troubled leadership and “fisher kings,” who poison their organizations from the top down by infusing their culture with their own dysfunctions.
Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what motivates people to excel, and in the absence of motivation or drive, what sets them up to fail.
I am so full of proverbs and sayings and clichés, right now, I don’t even know where to begin.
Alexander, Richard Branson and your boss: A tale of love and leadership
“There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.” – Navy SEAL saying
I just started reading the The Virtues of War, by Steven Pressfield. (Yes, the guy who wrote Gates of Fire, which I quoted at the beginning of this post.) It tells the story of Alexander the Great, from his childhood to the end of his campaigns, a man who conquered most of the known world before his thirty-third birthday. I am only forty pages into it, but already, it’s fascinating to consider that at only 16, he led 1/3 of his father’s army into battle, his squadron facing Greece’s fiercest warriors (who crushed even the Spartans), and won the day against men better equipped, better trained and just as valorous as Leonidas’ famous 300.
At 16, I couldn’t have led a street gang, much less generals and an army. So aside from being the son of a king, how did he do it? How did he get these men to trust him, to have faith in him, to surge into battle with him and fight until the day was won, instead of simply letting him ride along and take credit for his generals’ work?
One of the answers the book explores is the fact that – aside from being charismatic, clever as hell and already a master tactician before hitting puberty – his men loved him. From his generals to the rank and file, they just loved him. They respected him. Had faith in him. They followed him into battle because they trusted his genius, admired his courage, and felt elevated to be at his back.
Think about your favorite person in the world. Someone you admire above all. A politician, a military commander, an artist, a CEO, an agency principal… Whatever. Whomever. Think about the person you would kill to work for or serve under.
Apple’s Steve Jobs?
Virgin’s Richard Branson?
Ford’s Scott Monty?
Insert blank here.
Imagine your first day. How it would feel waking up that morning. How it would feel at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when things suddenly quieted down for a few minutes and you had time to reflect on where you are, living the dream, actually BEING there. How it would feel that evening, sitting at home, thinking back on your day. The smile on your face. The excitement pulling at every fiber in your body.
Now imagine your hundredth day. Your 500th. Your 1000th, still working for the one person you admire the most in the world. Someone whose trust and respect you’ve earned by now. Someone who seeks your advice and opinion, who puts your ideas and insights forward. Someone who inspires you to be the best that you can be, and makes you feel like your work is important and valuable. Every day.
Imagine waking up every morning filled with a sense of purpose as warm to the soul as a sunny spring afternoon.
An organization filled with people who feel that way cannot fail. Morale, not technology, not tools, not training, wins the day. Morale is everything.
Morale creates the difference between good boat crews and bad boat crews during BUDs (a weeks-long grueling SEAL selection process), and as we now know, “there are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.”
Now imagine working for someone you dislike. Someone who doesn’t inspire you. Someone who wouldn’t miss you if you were laid off tomorrow. I am not even talking about being forced to work for a sociopath, here. Just someone who doesn’t really care about his or her staff all that much. Someone who would be hard-pressed to inspire loyalty from anyone under their authority.
Imagine your 1000th day working for this person. Imagine the quality of work you and the rest of the staff would be in the habit of producing.
If there’s a clue in this discussion, it is this: You are the same person regardless of your boss. Same personality. Same upbringing. Same skills and wants and needs. It could even be the exact same job in the same office at the same desk. The only thing that changes is the boat leader. Your boss. Your captain. Consider the difference in both motivation and effect between the leader who inspires you, and the one who does not. The one you could be loyal to, and the other.
Consider then, the importance of love in the equation, and furthermore, the importance of certain key human qualities – of human virtues – in leadership. I’m not kidding. Pause. Sit back. Take a few minutes.
Now consider the reasons why you selected your hypothetical dream boss at the beginning of this discussion. What qualities do you admire in them? What draws you to their legend? What makes you love them enough to name them as your ideal boss?
The virtues of leadership, mind you, don’t always include kindness.
The young officer and the veterans
I “earned” my lieutenant’s bars at 21, and on the first day of my very first command, standing before an assembly of curious petty officers, I swiftly arrived at the conclusion that didn’t know shit. This was my first practical management experience: Being the new acting XO for a company of Fusiliers Marins (French Navy Marines), whose rank and file all knew their jobs much better than I did.
Which wasn’t hard, since I was fresh out of OCS.
So here I was, my bags yet unpacked and still in my dress uniform, addressing a group of grizzled, rotten bastards who were there at least as much out of sordid curiosity as professional courtesy. To them, I was new meat. Nothing more. They stood there, sizing me up, wondering who among them would do the honors of explaining how things really worked. The “No offence, Lieutenant, but…”
I knew the score.
It occurred to me, as I was about to address this assembly of cutthroats, that nothing in my training had prepared me for this. Nothing. Crawling in the mud, sure. Shooting at paper targets, definitely. Driving attack boats at high speed, boarding ships in the dark, fast-roping out of helicopters, blowing up tank carcasses and storming fake towns, absolutely. But I had no idea how to get these guys to respect me, to trust me, to work for me for any other reason than that they had to. They weren’t going to make it easy for me. These men were mostly there because they were head cases. Discipline flunkies. All decorated veterans, brave men with more guts than sense, but too clever and independent and difficult to manage even for a corps like the FUSCOS. This was the assignment I had requested, out of misplaced bravado and contempt for some of my glory-chasing classmates, and the full reality of it now stood before me, smirking like two dozen hungry hyenas in on a private joke. I was, as they say, fuckered.
So here’s what I did. I sat down and invited them to sit too. I introduced myself, and asked them to introduce themselves as well. We went around the room, and then I told them something very close to this:
“J’ai tout a apprendre…” Oh, hang on. Let’s do this in English.
“I have everything to learn, and I came here specifically to learn it from you.” I pointed to my beautiful new épaulettes adorned with my brand new gold bars. Some scoffed. I nodded. “I’ve been an officer for less than a day. The reality of the thing is that I won’t truly be an officer until you’ve made me one. All of you.” I paused and looked around the room. “I won’t be an officer until you, to a man, have made me your Lieutenant. I came here because you’re the biggest assholes in the Navy, and if I can’t get you lot to make me into a half way decent officer, then I’m beyond help.” I looked around the room to see their reactions. ”Any questions?”
They were stunned. Many of them laughed. I even saw in the eyes of a few of them a glimmer of what might have been acknowledgment and respect. I only won over a few of them that day, but that was more than I needed. It was a start.
Without getting too far into my little war stories, here’s what I learned during my time as a young officer: The men who loved me went the extra mile. They excelled because they wanted to. Those who didn’t went nowhere. This was a lesson well learned, and one we will revisit before we’re done here today.
Beyond this, the facts of my service as an officer were this: Reenlistments doubled. Aptitude scores skyrocketed. We began to be invited to train with elements of the Foreign Legion’s 4th Regiment, which was no small feat. I was reprimanded by my superiors both within the FUSCO and the larger base itself more often than I can recall for all sorts of shenanigans. I constantly broke the rules – or at least stretched them. My direct superior’s assessment was that I was too close to my men. The base commander’s general assessment was that I was a pain his ass… but that I had the virtue of being interesting. In spite of our difference of rank, we became good friends. Even with all this turmoil, I managed to find myself decorated in the summer of 1993, less than a year into my military service for what the Navy called “exceptional service,” though to this day, I have no idea what I did to deserve that medal except cause trouble.
Case in point: I had a petty officer under my command quietly removed from my unit. A guy with twenty years of service. A veteran of Lebanon and countless campaigns in Africa. A war hero, once. But (there’s always a “but”) he had a temper and abused his men. My men. Whatever kind of man he had been in the past had been replaced by something else altogether. I suppose peace can be hard on a man who lives only for war. Good warriors don’t always make good leaders. There is more to the business of soldiering than courage under fire and a propensity for violence. For months, I tried to steer him in a different direction. I failed. We had an altercation. He moved on. There’s a lesson in this too, one of humility and resignation, and we’ll also revisit this story before the end of this post.
But the story I want to tell you now, is how on a sunny summer day, because I hadn’t yet done enough to distinguish myself as complete screw-up, I told off a full-bird colonel, because like my troubled petty officer, he was taking a dump on my men. And that, my friends, was not okay with me. The honor of being a pain in their rumps fell to me and me alone. (Don’t worry, there’s a lesson in this too. A big one.) Here’s what happened:
The barracks incident
The colonel wanted to move his reservists into our barracks and make my men sleep in tents. We were about to begin two weeks of maneuvers with a reserve unit from the Army, guys who in time of war would be called upon to put on a uniform, gather around the base to defend it, and then surrender at the first sign of the enemy.
Let me clarify a few things before I go on, so you don’t think I was being insolent for the sake of being difficult. My men could have slept in tents for a week without trouble, (they were all used to far worse) but it was the principle of the thing: The colonel didn’t understand how territorial men in a military unit can be. He came in on their turf (our turf) and treated very well trained men like rabble. What he did showed a dangerous and insulting absence of respect for men who were not even under his command. Although his rank far exceeded mine and his operational authority overlapped my own chain of command, his “insult” couldn’t go unanswered. I set him straight. It was as simple as that. But the consequences of this act, as witnessed by my men, proved to be of some importance.
Back to our story.
The reservists – there by law, mostly against their will – were a problem. They clearly didn’t want to be there, did not enjoy military life, and had a vicious disposition towards my men, other naval personnel on base, and especially women in uniform. My men were under strict orders from me to avoid any and all confrontations. To ignore insults and taunts, to back away from challenges, and to be as cordial to each and every reservist as if they were foreign dignitaries. It was difficult given that my men were proud and intolerant of disrespect, but this, they did. For me.
The reservists, actually, were more than just “a problem”. They were hooligans of the worst sort: Weak of mind and body, petty, rude and completely undisciplined. Those among them who might have been okay fell in pace with the agitators among them: The loud-mouthed jokers who know how to seize the attention of impressionable men looking to be included in a pack. It didn’t help that the Army officers in charge of managing them were afraid of inciting a mutiny by enforcing proper discipline. We treated the reservists like brothers, in spite of everything. We trained and drilled with them all day. We took them on night patrols to teach them the ropes. We slowly but surely started to make them into soldiers again. As much as we could anyway. By the end of the two weeks, we had started to form bonds with them. The animosity, the negativity, the lack of respect… All of it had been replaced with the seeds of camaraderie, professionalism and what the Greeks called dynamis: The will to fight, or the fighting spirit. We might have made warriors out of them yet. (A few months with us, and who knows?)
(There is a story within the story about the final exercise in which a small detachment of my men and I fought against these two companies of reservists and half of my Marines, in which I got in pretty serious trouble for kidnapping the base commander in the middle of the night and scaring his wife half to death. I won the exercise and received the biggest arse chewing of my career, but that is a tale for another day.)
A week before the exercise, half way through the reservists’ training, arrived a colonel who oversaw the deployment and command of every reserve unit in the Army’s Mediterranean theater. This was the man I would offend.
Half way through the afternoon of his arrival, I noticed my men moving all of their gear from our barracks and into the reservists’ field tents. Confused, I asked one of my squad leaders to tell me what was going on. He explained that he and the other petty-officers had been ordered by the colonel himself to swap bunks with the reservists. They were to take over the tents and surrender their barracks to the colonel’s pet monkeys. No one was particularly happy about it, but orders were orders. I told him to order the men to grab their gear and put it back where it belonged: In their barracks. There would be an inspection before shift change. He stared at me in silence, not daring to say anything. I knew what he was thinking. I repeated my order. He nodded and relayed the order to the rest of the men, who stopped and stared at him, then me. I called to one of my men, a K9 specialist who was on duty that day to fetch the colonel.
Moments later, the man emerged from the officers’ mess and greeted me with all the contempt he could muster: Me, a mere lieutenant. What could I possibly want? I saluted him and nodded towards the tents of the reservists, where my men were now busy removing their belongings and his were busy moving back in. I let him take in the sight, and asked him what he saw. He answered that he could see my men disobeying his orders. He was furious. I calmly watched my men and his, busy setting things right, and told him he was wrong.
“What you are seeing is my men obeying my orders,” I explained.
He turned beet red with rage.
I calmly explained that my men, unlike his, had a mission to perform, that our unit and the base itself were operational (one of only two naval bases in France, in fact, with such a high level of security and strategic priority), and that under no circumstances would their mission be jeopardized by his reservists because they were too soft to sleep in tents. I went on to remind him that, charged as I was with this mission, that because it superseded all else and we were not under his authority, with all due respect to his rank, my men, under my orders, would not sleep in his piece of crap army tents while his miscreants slept in comfortable beds they hadn’t yet earned.
Sensing that something was happening, my men edged towards us to try and hear what we were talking about, but a stern look in their direction made them keep their distance.
The colonel started yelling. He gave me very mean looks and flailed his arms about while he went on about ending my career and having me dragged before the President himself. I crossed my arms and listened until he was done. I then told him that if he wanted to discuss it further, he could take it up with the base commander whose authority I was actually under.
Within the hour, I was summoned. Phone calls had been made to Headquarters. Someone at the Ministry of Defense had even called from Paris to find out what was going on. You think old women spread gossip fast? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve been in the Navy. Our little tent and barracks incident was the talk of the fleet.
The dressing-down that followed was epic. The base commander, shadowed by his XO – the Marine Company commander, my boss – spent a good fifteen minutes yelling at me in his office. I stood there and took it, as was expected. Fifteen minutes was somewhat of a record for him. I started rooting for him after about ten or eleven. I am sure his clerks outside were keeping track of the time as I was, only grinning ear to ear from the safety of their offices.
Finally, he couldn’t keep a straight face anymore and broke into laughter. He told me he thought the colonel was a prick too. So did half the Navy. I wasn’t in trouble at all. He just wanted to see me sweat it out.
The colonel was gone by the time I returned to my men. Back to his headquarters he returned, no doubt bent on having my head delivered to him on a platter. (It remained, to his chagrin, very much attached.) The reservists were quiet. My men, smirking, saluted me with a little more zest than usual. I told them to cut it out. It didn’t help. The damage was done. To mark the occasion and ensure there wouldn’t be too much resentment over the incident, I took them all on a night march, Marines and reservists, explaining that this whole adventure had all been for naught since no one would be sleeping in barracks or a tent that night anyway. They didn’t seem to mind.
Things changed after that day. Not because I was a great officer (I was actually a pretty lackluster officer), not because I was a badass warrior (I was a wuss) or the best shot or the fastest runner or the most charismatic guy on base. I was none of these things. All I had done was stand up for them in a way that perhaps no one ever had, and that I had done so for something as insignificant as beds and a roof over their heads didn’t hurt.
Imagine your boss standing up for you the way I stood up for them. Imagine how you would feel about him the next day, when he smiled at you and asked you how you were doing. Imagine how much you would be willing to give when he next asked something of you.
Now imagine that to top it all off, your father, assuming you had even grown up knowing him, had never stood up for you either. (Most of my men were under the age of 20, and at least half came from broken homes.)
But this isn’t the lesson yet. This story isn’t about me. I am just the one telling it. There’s more.
The wisdom of old warriors, and the secret of leadership
A month and a half later, the commander of the naval special forces (COFUSMA), during a surprise inspection of our unit, took me aside and asked me how I had managed to turn the unit around. I told him I hadn’t done anything except train the men as ordered.
He grinned and told me I was full of shit.
His right hand man, a guy who without his uniform and his rows of decorations would have looked more like a Belgian antiques dealer than the badass super soldier he was, later invited me to walk with him. For once, I didn’t disobey a direct order, he noted. I was making progress. There may be hope for me yet. All of those commando old-timers were smartasses.
We chatted for a while. He asked me where I was from, what I wanted to do with my life, the countries I wanted to visit… It went on for a while. At one point, when he was satisfied that we were well beyond the need for small talk, he stopped and turned to me, and asked me the same question COFUSMA had asked me before: How had I managed to turn the unit around? A year before, it had been a dump for discipline cases. It had the lowest morale scores in the Navy. The least amount of reenlistments. Interventions and readiness scores were mediocre. Yet on this day, before COFUSMA and his staff, the unit had been tested and retested, and our scores exceeded those of the top Marine units in the country. Morale was higher than in any other unit he had visited so far that year. More of my men were returning to commando units than from any other Marine unit unit in the Navy. How had I managed to turn things around? A rookie. A 21-year-old kid with a cracker-jack bar on his shoulder, no command experience whatsoever and a knack for getting in trouble.
What I wanted to say – and what I still firmly believe – was “luck?”
He stared at me for a long time and smiled. As it turns out, he knew the answer to the question even if I didn’t. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “Every other guy who comes here to do this job, for as long as I can remember, he goes to Lorient, he gets his bars, he comes here, he leaves, another one comes and takes his place. That’s it. You too. But the difference is this: You care about them more than you care about you. And about these.” He gestured to my bars.
I protested. I told him that wasn’t the case. He put his hand on my shoulder to quiet me and continued. “Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when it matters. When it matters, you put yourself last. And they notice.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like a fraud. The reason why I wasn’t afraid for my job was because I knew I wasn’t in for good. This wasn’t going to be my career. I didn’t care if I never got promoted. Besides, I still had my share of enemies on base, people rooting against me, hoping to see me fail. He told me he knew all that. That all of my predecessors had been in the same boat (forgive the pun).
“Your men aren’t indifferent to you, Olivier. They don’t mock or resent you, the way they mock and resent other officers from the EOR program. They love you. Not all of them and not all of the time, you aren’t that good, but enough of them and when it matters. That’s the bond you have with them. They’ll always be loyal to you because you’re loyal to them. And just like you only show them that loyalty when it counts, so do they only show you theirs when it counts. They know they can depend on you, and that’s rare. That’s how it works. Leadership is a handshake. It’s a quid pro quo of respect, empathy and honesty. You give and they give back in kind. That‘s the secret of leadership.”
Then he said this: “What you probably don’t see, however, and something you should be careful about, is that you crave their approval the same way they crave yours. It’s a double-edged sword.” With this, he taught me temperance. He reminded me that there is a line between leadership and friendship. That seeking the approval of your men, of your staff, can be dangerous.
I thought back to my first day with the petty officers. The speech I gave them. He knew where my mind was at that moment. He had come up in the ranks with several of them. They stayed in touch. Some of my closest allies on base had turned out to be lifelong friends of his. He knew everything I had done since taking my command.
I asked then what I should do. He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. He told me to keep doing what I was doing. And that was that.
I left military life behind at the end of my tour some months later. Part of me always regretted it, and it’s fair to say that I still miss it every day, but I don’t think I was meant for military life. Not in France, anyway. Too many generals and not enough action. Never a good combination.
At any rate, 18 years later, here I am, finding the same lessons spelled out in Steven Pressfield’s books about Leonidas and Alexander, and suddenly compelled to write these long ass posts.
The lessons then, and what this has to do with the psychology of failure
And now, the lessons:
(I know. You could have just scrolled down to this paragraph. Sorry. I forgot to mention that.)
Leadership is love.
Okay, but seriously?
Yes. Seriously. And here’s what’s else:
The way you engineer a culture of failure is by doing the exact opposite of everything I wrote about in this post. Here’s how it’s done. This is how it starts (Sorry, SP, I took the liberty of turning one of your paragraphs into the opposite of what it actually states):
I will tell His Majesty what a fool is. A fool abides within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A fool dines while his men go hungry and sleeps when they stand at watch upon the wall. A fool commands his men’s loyalty through fear and purchases it with gold; he never earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a fool assigns others to lift in his stead. A fool requires service of those he leads without ever providing it to them. They serve him, not he them.
– (What Xeones might have said if asked to speak about the exact opposite of a good leader.)
Leadership is not an entitlement. Cultures of failure, the psychology of failure in organization begins with the opposite of love: It begins with fear and selfishness. It begins with the word my.
My job, and no, you can’t have it.
What is mine, I can lose. It can be taken away from me. This puts me at odds with everyone else because it puts my self interest above everyone else’s. My brothers now become a threat. I begin to regard everyone with suspicion. Silos emerge. Whips appear. The illusion of control replaces dynamism. Before you know it, the organization begins to turn against itself from within.
I am reminded of a group VP I once worked for, who before every quarter-end would fire staff if her P&L showed she came shy of her bonus.
This is poison.
When leadership ceases to be about entitlement and perks, about bigger salaries and nicer offices, when it becomes service instead of power, it returns to its pure and effective form. Not that any of these things need to be removed from the equation, mind you. It’s just that they don’t matter. They’re the surface, not the substance.
Another thing I learned during my time in uniform, and what was later confirmed in every position I’ve held since is this: People will shine if you give them a reason to. And everyone, yes everyone can shine.
In the same way, people will fail if you give them a reason to. It goes both ways.
There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.
Two last little bits, and I’ll let you go.
1. The first is this: If I sometimes shone as an officer – and not everyone was of the opinion that I did – it wasn’t because I was wise enough to be popular with my men, whether by accident or design. The truth is that I looked up to several of the petty officers I met on that first day. How could I not? I was 21 and they were in their late thirties. They were badasses: Confident, experienced, great at their jobs, they were everything I wanted to be. After my little speech, a group of them took me under their wing. They mentored me. They blessed me with the courtesy of their respect and exemplary behavior before their men, putting aside pride and personal feelings of scorn for an officer so young, and treated me as if I were worthy of their best salutes… which I wasn’t.
There are lazy salutes and there are snappy ones. You learn to know the difference. These guys snapped to as if I had been Charles De Gaulle himself. That, more than any other thing, inspired me to be the officer they thought I could be. It set the tone for the rest of the unit to give me a chance to serve them with the gratitude and awe they deserved.
It was them. It was always them.
And it didn’t hurt that the base commander himself, by granting me his affection and protecting me as he did, gave me license to be the officer my unit needed in order to get back on its feet.
The more I gave, the more it gave back. The more it gave back, the more I found myself compelled to dig even deeper and give more.
Leadership is a trust.
2. Here’s the last one, and it speaks directly to failure. My failure. It deals with the petty officer who left my command under what could best be described as unfortunate circumstances. He had been a good man once. Probably. At least a good soldier. As a section leader in my company though, he had become poison. It had begun long before my time, but as an officer, his officer, I failed him. There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.
For months, I tried to reason with him. He scorned me. The man had no more respect for me than he did for his men. He wasn’t alone in his dislike for me, but he was the only one who expressed it openly. Nothing I tried worked. I simply couldn’t get through to him. I spoke to his peers and asked for their advice. They tried to settle things among themselves, which failed as well. He was a bully. He was angry with everything. He didn’t want to be there. As the entire unit fell into place, he made himself a wedge and pushed back. He taunted me. At every turn, he challenged me. My men didn’t have to say what they thought. I knew that I couldn’t let it go on: My authority was at stake. My very ability to command. If I allowed him to defy me any longer, I would lose their respect and loyalty, no matter how much they liked me. No matter how many colonels I stood up to. And there was the other issue: That it was my job to protect them, and if I couldn’t do that, what good was I? At only 21, I didn’t know what to do. I eventually ran out of options and it came to a confrontation. It’s what he wanted and it’s what he got.
The outcome was this: He left. I stayed. By morning, workers had already patched up the walls of my office and repaired the broken glass of the windows. The desks and chairs were returned to their proper place. It was as if nothing had happened. No one spoke of it openly outside of the official inquiry, which was itself swift. He was transfered, then offered early retirement. I made sure his record wasn’t tarnished by his undistinguished final years in uniform. A man’s life work shouldn’t be invalidated by only a fraction of it.
The immediate problems of morale, abuse and my ability to command were solved that day, and his departure was as if a weight had been lifted from the entire unit’s shoulders. His friends did not become my enemies. I was told I had done the right thing. My mentors offered to buy me a round of drinks. But I never saw it as a win. Neither did my superiors, who expressed their disappointment in me. The culture of the Fusiliers was such, though, that in the absence of a better course of action, only this one remained: A good old duel. Two rams locking horns. The dumbest form of problem solving on the face of the earth. In the end, it came down to that, but I wish it hadn’t. This also is not a great way to resolve management problems in the civilian world, by the way (though there, transferring or firing people can be a bit easier).
Cultures of failure are resilient. They grab hold of the ground like a weed and don’t let go. If you allow them to take root inside an organization, they grow and eventually take over. In the best of worlds, you find the wisdom not to fight them, not to defeat them, not to allow them to brace themselves against you and become an enemy. In the best of worlds, you can inspire them to turn themselves around, you can win them over with reason and affection and virtue. Sometimes though, as I found out in this instance, no such luck. But you still have to do what you have to do. Leadership is also about having to make hard decisions in impossible conditions, about having to choose between two bad solutions when no good one is available. Sometimes, leadership is as much about minimizing failure as it is engineering wins. It isn’t for everybody. It’s tough on the nerves and hard on the soul, but for those who want it, it’s there, at once beautiful and terrible, elating and terrifying, infinitely rewarding yet relentlessly unforgiving. You never quite figure it all out, but as long as you press on, the wind tends to stay mostly at your back.
Thanks for sticking around to the end. I felt like telling stories today.