Because I wield power over others,
I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.
Robert Sutton closes out “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” by citing what I think is the most often overlooked (and potentially the most destructive) aspect of leadership on this list. It is the idea that the very position of influence blinds the leader from truly realizing how his actions impact subordinates.
When you think about it, there is nothing more elemental in human interaction – to understand how we affect other people – but this awareness is often hidden even from those who base their professions on influencing others.
Army Reserve Soldiers and competitors listen to a class on rifle marksmanship before the inaugural Army Reserve Small Arms Championship hosted at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Sept. 22. Approximately 70 Soldiers, making up 14 teams, came from all over the country to compete. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)
Power and Insensitivity in Military Leadership
The significance of Sutton’s statement is evident when you look at how its components relate to the military:
- Power. The severity of combat operations demands that military leaders must be able to leverage near-absolute power in moments of crisis. Power is built into the organization by the nature of command authority, through the legal obligations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and by the military’s values and traditions.
- Risk. Leadership failure in the military can carry dire consequences, not just in combat but also in civil-military relations, public scrutiny, and social trust. The military’s recent struggle with toxic leadership exhibits that fact.
- Insensitivity. The very core of military leadership contains a healthy bit of stoic insensitivity – the notion that the commander is detached, unflappable, and immune to emotional stress.
So, the military gives its leaders a lot of power and partly relies on their insensitivity to lead in tough times. But we can all acknowledge that those times of crisis are few, and the majority of leadership time is spent navigating day-to-day routines, preparing for big events, tackling projects, managing systems, and running meetings.
Tips for Not Being a Jerk Boss
How can military leaders accept Sutton’s 12th Belief about good bosses and ensure their own behavior doesn’t negatively impact the organization? Here are a few tips:
- Ask for feedback. The best leaders ask for input from everyone around them because they realize their own perception is skewed by position and power. Provide formal and informal means to find out how your actions are affecting the individuals and the organization as a whole. You might be surprised.
- Establish a “No-Asshole Rule”…for yourself. Robert Sutton’s most popular book is devoted to this concept. Announce to your organization that jerks will not be tolerated. Then if you want to show them you’re serious, give them permission to call you out if you’re the one being a jerk.
- Recognize the common good. In the competitive environment of the military ranks, it’s easy to brush off other people as less-talented or less-experienced. This is particularly true if you’re the commander, the one who is expected to be the standard-bearer. But there’s no reason to wield this power over your people or look down on them. The truth is that most people really are doing their best to succeed. If they fall short, it’s probably due to lack of experience…or a lack of training, in which case it’s the leader’s fault.
- Don’t step on enthusiasm. In the same vein, don’t belittle people who show enthusiasm and heart, even if it’s for an idea that ultimately won’t work or doesn’t make sense. Redirect them gently, with encouragement. Appreciate the fact that you’ve got a worker who has the intellect, energy, and confidence to present an idea.
- Praise the effort, not just the result. Because the “suck it up” attitude is prevalent in our military, it’s acceptable for staffs and subordinates to pour their heart, souls, time, and energy into a project, only to be judged solely on results. Yes, at the end of the day, we must achieve the military mission…but that doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of and acknowledge all that it took to get there. Praise your people all along the journey, even if the road doesn’t lead to absolute success.
- Ask personal questions. I had the unfortunate experience of working with a boss who sat 8 feet from me for almost a year but never engaged me with a single personal question. He didn’t care. Regardless of what his true intent was, to me he was an insensitive jerk. Your people want to know that you see more about them then just their work.
- Be humble. I watched a Colonel get promoted to Brigadier General and as the three-star boss emplaced the new star on his uniform, he warned, “Don’t forget that this rank is held on by Velcro.” He said this partly to remind the officer that even generals can get fired, but more importantly to emphasize that true leadership does not rely on rank. Take away the rank and position, and what is left is the leader’s ability to influence others by who he is inside. Leading with rank is not the making of a good boss.
Questions for Leaders
- Would you change your leadership style if you had complete awareness of how your actions impact others?
- Does your leadership environment have a way for people to tell you that you’re being a jerk?
- Have you made it clear to your subordinate leaders that being a jerk is unacceptable?