#54 Guest Post from JH

The following is a guest post from JH. I have done this once before when I thought the subject and the writing were relevant to the content of the larger discussion. JH is a current Army officer with an interest similar to mine in human leader development. He is also a Millennial who provides the blog with a first-hand accounting of his perspective. He is specifically referencing and replying to my post, #53.

"I agree with everything you said, however I would like to look at a few points from a different angle. Specifically I want to address the Millennial Generation, anchors, and lack of confidence in leadership by those in the Millennial Generation and how it relates back to the Army structure and its mission.

I think first, as you have done, and you and I have discussed previously, we need to look at what created the Millennial Generation. In the hierarchy, you referenced the need for security as a key. Before we define what this security feels like, we first need to address a different topic. In order to satisfy the question of security, one internally has to answer the question, am I secure? That cannot be done until one first is able to define the word “I.” Defining ourselves and having a complete sense of self is an impossible task, and I believe Bennis’s points play into that more than we realize at first glance.

A prominent Christian Theologian, Michael Himes explains it best in his book, "Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations About God, Relationships and Service." He cites an example from Lewis Carroll’s book, "Alice in Wonderland." In this passage, Alice finds herself in a conversation with the caterpillar and asks him how she can get to a particular destination. The caterpillar, being a strict logistician, replies, “Who are you?” The caterpillar cannot answer Alice’s question until all the parts of his question have been defined, namely, who is Alice. Alice tries to answer the question by giving her name, where she is from etc. The caterpillar cannot accept her answers which are descriptions of who Alice is, not a definition.

This story illustrates for us our inability to actually define ourselves. In actuality, until our journey through life is complete, who we are is not quite finished. Himes argues the point further stating, if we were to give one sweeping statement that defines who we are at a specific point in time, the second we do that we immediately become different than before we gave that definition. Himes argues that the only true answer to who we are is a mystery, yet we continually must describe, refine and attempt to define ourselves. The answer of who we are is integral in how we see ourselves and act in our environment and function as a person.

In an effort to attempt to define who we are, we continually rely on descriptions and identification of self with other entities. It helps us try and zero in on the answer. When asked the question who are you, one may answer, “I am in the Army,” “I am from Florida,” or “I work with Fenlason.” These answers begin to arrive closer to who we are. Looking for deeper answers than occupation or geographical origin, one can use ideologies to describe themselves. “I am a republican,” “I am a democrat,” “I am a Soldier.” Many people often identify with a hero or popular person to try and get closer to a definition. The technique is to associate or anchor one’s self with the image of a personal hero. Heroes can come from anywhere, politics, work, family; virtually any place that a person can identify an ideology represented by a specific person. In politics, a great number of Americans were able to anchor themselves with heroes such as JFK. In the sports arena, many people once anchored themselves with the image of OJ Simpson, or Tiger Woods, evidenced purely by the number of companies who have used these figures to sell products, or how many sports jerseys people buy with a specific player’s name on them. These particular examples illustrate clearly what is one key factor in the creation of the Millennial Generation. Increasingly prevalent through media attention and publicity, public heroes whose ideologies we associate with to help describe ourselves, have become toppled by scandal and dishonesty. As the symbols prove inconsistent with the ideologies we attributed to them, it causes us to question the existence of the ideology itself. We lose trust in where we once felt anchored, and inherently lose a sense of who we are. In politics, while people like JFK from the 60’s, practiced behavior inconsistent with attributed ideology, it was not prevalent public concern or knowledge at the time. Not until the Watergate scandal when the President, a symbol of our national identity, American ideals, and most importantly a symbol of leadership truly undermined the public’s ability to anchor themselves in the idea that we can trust our leadership. What once was a firm anchor, (politics aside) as a symbol of leadership proved definitively that any leader, even the President, can betray our trust. The removal of that safety blanket has been a significant contribution to what we now see with the Millennial Generation. There is a cultural realization that, “I can no longer trust outside of myself to help define who I am, because if I do, I will soon realize I was anchored in something false and unstable. The Millennial Generation has turned to the only thing certain to be real, themselves. This makes even self description impossible.

Using yourself to define you is like using a word in its own definition. You find more and more those in the Millennial Generation feel unable to anchor. They float with the wind, the tide, and their feelings. Their initial response to potential anchors of sports heroes, political leaders and ideologies is distrust and skepticism. Not able to describe or refine the definition of self makes one stop searching for answers to who and what I am and, am I secure? As a leader of this generation, the only way to truly provide security is to have a strong sense of self and earn the trust of those you lead that you can be that anchor.

Those who work in the Army can provide a good anchor and teach others to answers the question of “who am I,” but only through personal relationships with those they lead. Reflecting back on my “leadership training,” what was emphasized was a high PT score, taking charge when in charge, and being able to display confidence. Absent from my training was any emphasis on getting to know others, increasing my ability to interact with people, or EO type discussions or assessments. Throughout my Army experience, zero or no tolerance for mistakes has been a constant theme. Results have been more important than process. Focus on people and the “business of people” is often echoed, but seldom practiced. Bennis says audacity is an integral part of leadership. With audacity comes an increase in the opportunity for mistakes. You either function as part of the team, or you’re outside. If you diminish the image of a leader then you are no longer allowed as part of the team. Common military stereotypes of poor social skills and rigid personalities contribute to this idea. These stereotypes come from a generation that bought into the system for the systems sake. They were able to anchor themselves in the organization and help define themselves by it. The nature of leadership has since changed. The large face of the organization is no longer a strong anchor. We have to personally assure through relationship and example those we lead in smaller units; we must demonstrate that it is safe to trust. We continually have to reaffirm that trust. Only when a Soldier is anchored and confident in that anchor will they feel secure. It is then that we can teach them to further define themselves, become productive leaders and become anchors to others. Only when all that takes place, can we teach them to achieve self actualization.

A word on how this relates to the integral part of the Army’s definition of leadership, “…operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” The current “mission” very clearly appears to be something similar to, “Partner with local nationals in our OEF/OIF missions to influence stability.” One could argue, with the numbers of junior officers and Soldiers getting out, what we mean by “Improving the organization” could best be defined by examples such as the study on, “Retaining Officer Talent” and other initiatives to make the organization better for its people, and make the people better for the organization. Being able to “influence” those in the organization to operate to accomplish those missions can be found in the essence of the missions themselves.

The revamp of the counseling system, additional cultural or leadership training, a new system for evaluating leadership and increased emphasis on language training are all programs aimed at achieving those goals. They can provide technical skills to enhance mission accomplishment, but do not ever teach individuals the “tactical” art required to achieve or even prove mission accomplishment. The tactical art of influencing those to partner effectively or influencing those to make the organization better for its people must be taught on an individual level with a master and apprentice. It cannot be accomplished through a series of steps or by doing a task. It cannot be explained, it must be demonstrated. The apprentice must immerse themselves in the deepest understanding of how to practice the art, or they will never successfully be able to practice the art on their own. The two missions ironically, are identical at their core. They are the two areas in which our organization appears to have the most difficulty achieving success. Fenlason said it best when he said, “One of my responsibilities is to provide them the place and opportunity to do that.” If every leader in the organization “influenced” by attempting to form a relationship with those they led to provide a “place and opportunity” to feel anchored and work towards self actualization, they would understand the art required in today’s missions of partnership and leadership because they would be practicing it. Those missions cannot be answered with a “how we partner” smart card or taught in a “leadership 101” course. Providing security for Soldiers we lead and security for local nationals in the combat operating environment cannot be approached as a science, measured or quantified. One either feels it, or they don’t. One either has the finesse to perceive its presence in others, or they don’t. If we, as an organization are not effectively “operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization,” then by our own definition are we really leading, or are we floating, unanchored, and unsecured? Are we constantly rowing, believing if we do something hard enough or enough times, someday the organization will be able to anchor and answer the question, “Am I secure?” I think the best answer to that question is, “Who are you?”

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.