Saturday, June 26, 2010

Those Idiots Up At HQ

I remember seeing this cartoon in which two young soldiers were in a foxhole and trading complaints about how the idiots up at the platoon headquarters were far removed from reality and had no clue about the true situation on the ground. Soldiers like to gripe and the complaints about "the idiots up at HQ" are probably among the more common ones.

The cartoon is funny on a couple of levels: One, a platoon is pretty much the smallest element in a military formation. The men and women in a platoon, to include the platoon leader, are truly down where the action is. It's funny to see these low ranking troopers offering complaints at that level about the separation between them and their leaders.

The real humor comes from the realization that even at that low level, people gripe about how their leadership doesn't have a clue. At least in the Army, there is always this underlying grumbling that people above them don't understand the real situation on the ground and can't possibly relate to what they are dealing with. Soldiers, and my assumption is people in every organization, like to complain about how their leaders don't get it, can't possibly understand their situation, and are isolated from reality inside their "Ivory Towers."

Which brings me to General Stanley McChrystal. As you know from the events of this week, the General was removed from his command after some negative comments about his boss (President Obama) and other civilian leaders were made public through, of all sources, Rolling Stone Magazine. It was the same sort of complaints that one might get from those troopers in the foxhole, only the stakes were a lot higher and they were broadcast to the entire world. Just like that, General McChrystal was out and General Petraeus was named the top commander in Afghanistan.

President Obama had no choice but to make this move. Insubordination at that level is clearly grounds for removal. It was clear that General McChrystal could control neither his tongue or his men and that the lack of respect for his civilian leaders necessitated a change. That he would say the things he did about his chain of command, in front of a reporter who clearly would love nothing more than the sort of salacious quotes that he offered up, demonstrated a real lack of judgement and gave the President no other option. The General crossed the line. At that level, with those stakes, there is no second chance.

Before we point fingers at the General, it is probably worth reflecting on our own leadership. How often do we complain about our "higher headquarters?" And when we do, is it in front of our teammates? Are we sometimes guilty of voicing negative thoughts about our superiors -- out loud and in front of our troops?

My guess is we all are like those soldiers in the cartoon. We all want to complain about the leaders above us, how they don't understand what we are dealing with down at our level. Yes, it is human nature to believe that we are not the problem but rather the idiots above us! Admit've felt this way...and you've been guilty of expressing your opinion in front of your people. (Or maybe it's just me, and I know I am guilty. But I'm guessing I'm not alone.)

It's a common issue. The leadership take-away is that it has consequences. On the rare occasion it can get back to the boss and cost us our job, as it did for General McChrystal. More often though, this attitude is contagious and will spread rapidly throughout the ranks. People hear what we say and will repeat it. Gradually you get a team with no confidence in their leaders. It's a virus whose symptoms include a breakdown in cohesion, a lack of trust and loyalty within the ranks, insubordination, and chaos.

We can all learn from this event. Let's ensure we stop ourselves before we offer complaints about our higher HQ, especially around the troops. Save that sort of talk for our spouse or our pets! Better yet, let's keep our focus inward. Let's deal with our own problems before pointing out others. The Bible says we need to take the log out of our own eye before we worry about the splinter in someone else's eye. Good advice. When we do this, we'll realize that we've got enough to worry about addressing our own failings, and that we don't need to point out where our leaders come short.

Bite your tongue, watch what you say, don't let your guard down, don't spout off to Rolling Stone Magazine. I don't know about you, but the events of the week were a good reminder. I need to remember that very often I am the "idiot up at HQ!" I don't need to spend time trying to fix my higher headquarters. I've got enough to do just fixing...ME. That's...Leader Business.


Lauri Elbing said...

Well said, Magness.

Tom Magness said...

Thank you Lauri Kay! I'm sure you liked the part about the "Idiot at HQ" being...ME! Haha!

I hope all is well! TM

Kim Warner said...

Hello Sir - very good points and definitely applicable to all. I have very recently caught myself voicing negative comments concerning others, after being amongst a group of folks who were also doing so. Negativity can be contagious! But so can positivity (that a word?) and joy. Take care - I'm sure we'll be seeing you soon at Bagram.

Dee said...

Very true! when a supervisor voices comments outloud about higher echelons infront of his/her employees pretty soon the employees start to think the same way - even when they don't have much contact with the higher level. Very negative ripple effect and very contagious! Nice blog :) good source for mentoring. I especially liked the comments about the McChrystal issue.

Dee said...

"We are not building roads, we are enhancing a nationwide transportation network. We are not building police stations, we are contributing to the security of the people. We are not building buildings...we are Building Afghanistan!"
This is a critical message that needs to get out to the world. From personal experience I know most people don't understand this part of our mission, all they hear is the negative stuff and they judge us by it. Thank you so much COL M :) for always inspiring us with your words and example.