#78 Ego and Fear


"1. The “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.

2. Psychoanalysis. the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment.

3. Egotism; conceit; self-importance

4. Self-esteem or self-image; feelings"



" 1. A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

2. A specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.

3. Concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone's safety.

4. Reverential awe.

5.that which causes a feeling of being afraid; that of which a person is afraid."


The words ego and fear popped into my head this afternoon and it struck me that a lot of what happens in the work place, and especially at this time in the Army, seems to be related to those two concepts.

People in leadership positions must posess both of these qualities in order to be effective. They are both healthy and must become part of the personal Orientation of anyone who is responsible for others. I have to believe in myself, and I must also be aware of those things that frighten me or cause me worry and concern. I have to believe that at certain points I am the best person suited to handle the responsibilities assigned to me, and I must also learn to listen to those things that worry me. Both will have an impact on how I Observe the situation I am presented with and the choices I have at my disposal to handle it.

For Army leaders, ego and fear, deserve much more consideration than they currently receive because a leader's ego may allow them to make a decision that they would not normally make, and conversely their fear may drive them to not choose a course of action that might be risky, but successful.

The key it seems, is to keep them in balance. One cannot be lulled into thinking that their past successes are automatic proof of future success, nor can they allow their fear to stop them from acknowledging and taking risk when the situation warrants.

The important realization when looking at ego relative to leadership in the Army is the recognition that the entire military structure is designed, built upon, and rewards those with healthy (maybe even over-healthy) egos who have been placed in positions of authority and handed the power to implement their ideas. As our past successes build upon themselves, we quickly begin to believe that we are the reason for that success. And because the institution routinely rewards, promotes, lauds, and encourages us due to our success, we begin to believe that we have capabilities and judgement that others do not that allow these things to happen. In effect the thought process goes like this: "I have been successful in the past, received praise and promotion due to that success (many times at the expense of others) and have climbed the ladder faster than my peers. What I'm doing must be right, because I keep moving up and others don't." Ego is an automatic by-product of any hierarchical organization because the structure itself validates the decisions and outcomes at every level in a very public manner. The Army does this with awards, decorations, promotions and selections for command at senior levels. If Lieutenant Colonel X is selected to be a battalion commander and Lieutenant Colonel Y is not, and remains a staff officer, then X's past accomplishments are validated and Y's are not. This can often lead to a very serious case of believing your own bullshit. And quite honestly, there isn't much reason for you not to belive your own bullshit, when the system itself is validating you at every step on the hierarchical ladder.

Fear, on the other hand, can be just as disabling as ego is enabling. Fear will stop you from pursuing objectives, or in some cases, even considering different possibilities or outcomes, simply because the possibility of success may not be guaranteed. Fear acts to limit the available solutions to a problem. It also acts as a personal barrier to understanding the situation clearly and objectively because it imposes an emotional response in between the facts presented and the decisions we make. For example, if I fear that personal judgment from my superiors will have a negative effect on me then by definition it limits the possibilities that I can pursue to solve my problem and limits them to only to those that I do not believe will bring me discredit in my bosses' eyes.

"I know what it's like to have failed, baby
With the whole world lookin' on
I know what it's like to have soared
And come crashin' like a drunk on a bar room floor"

'All the Way Home' - Bruce Springsteen

These ideas came to light this week in two different manners. First, on AKO (Army Knowledge On-line) there was a discussion regarding post #77, "A Matter of Interpretation" between two people looking at the background history of Operation Market Garden and it's effect on the Battle of the Bulge. In my post, I alluded to the idea of ego and fear by asking why leaders ignored the signs that the German's were planning on offensive, and why facts supportng the German build-up were ignored by Allied commanders. While both these gentlemen are much more historically astute than I am, my thoughts were more closely centered around the idea of heuristics and ego. I simply made the case that the leaders didn't listen because they believed that the Allied invasion would inevitably lead to success. It had to. Everything said so. They had planned it, executed it, and over-seen it, and the German army was being systematically destroyed by their endeavors. Their self-confidence and firmly held belief that the Germans could not muster an offensive directly led to the Battle of the Bulge. More importantly though, I think it was their individual and collective egos that caused them not to hear or see the indications that an offensive was in fact being mounted. Intergalactic ego collides with tiny facts floating around the battlefield....

The other happened in my small world. A decision has been made to increase the number of personnel my team can train at any one time. That decision has required a lot of other decisions and adjustments with regard to resourcing, and Soldier thru-put. Almost overnight, my little piece of the deployment puzzle went from an afterthought to the flavor of the week. People scrambling for data, others asking questions they never cared about before, others trying to figure out when the whole thing became an issue in the first place (and why they didn't know about it). And the sad part is that no one thought to ask me or my team. We were not asked to attend any of the planning sessions or discussions concerning how we would process 23% more people through the same number of tasks in the same amount of time, with the same number of trainers, while changing the schedule and the classroom, and the range time. In fact, I was expressly informed at one point that my attendance was not required.

[Now, for the sake of argument, if the preceding paragraph sounds like a bit of bruised ego, there is some merit to that and I would only ask that you suspend that for a moment to consider the following:]

From my perspective, a lot of people immediately above me are a little worried now that someone higher than them is going to ask when this issue first came up, and what they did about it. There are others who's ego's are driving the train and are making decisions without all the information.

Ego and fear suddenly seem to be a little more intimately related than they might seem at first blush. As a matter of fact they seem to be sitting right next to each other in the briefing room. You can almost feel the people who have had previous success and have been rewarded for it by increased responsibility and position. They like the way that feels, and it how enhances their sense of self-ability. They have begun to believe that they will get it right every time. That is what their history, their training, and the institution have led them to believe. And now they are faced with the loss of some of that professional faith because, like those who didn't listen to the lady who saw the big German tanks, or Col 'Monk' Dickson, who said the Germans would attack in the Ardennes, they worry that they might have gotten it wrong.

Ego collides with fear.

The purpose of this post isn't to throw stones at anyone. It truly is not. I like the Springsteen quote above because it pretty accurately reflects the middle to latter part of my career. In my ealrier days, I was driven by ego and the belief that I was doing it better than the next guy, that my thought process and decisions were always right. I have also been the guy who came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor. I've had my professional value questioned, and my belief system thrown into disarray. I have been on both sides of the fence. And I understand those who believe in their own sense of perpetual rightness because I did the same for many years. And I understand those who no longer trust, and live in fear of being wrong because that was the trap that I could have easily fallen into.

The point of this post was to get you, the reader, to pause for a moment and consider the role ego and fear play in your decision making process. Quite honestly lives depend upon your awareness of these emotions because the decisions you make, carried out by others, often come down to either acting out of ego, or acting out of fear. To truly lead people, especially in combat, you have to be able to suspend both long enough to see the mission clearly and your responsibilities honestly. Believing your own bullshit can get kids killed. So can't being afraid to stand up when necessary. Ego and fear sort of balance each other out, if both can be seen clearly enough to concentrate on the mission - separate from our place in it.

A week ago my boss came to me and informed me of the increase in personnel required. I gathered my team and we sketched some immediate ideas on a white board. At the time, there were more questions than answers. A young Staff Sergeant, stared at the board for awhile, scribbled some stuff down, scratched some stuff out, thought about it over a weekend and developed the new plan. He had a problem to solve and he solved it. He and I worked for 3 days to put it into play, each checking and re-checking the other's work. Without ego or fear, and concentrating only on the mission we were assigned, this plan will be successful. Not because I believe it, and certainly not because my past history guarantees positive results every time, but rather because I have experienced both ego and failure and am learning how to use them to correctly orient myself to my world. E.O. had the answer. My job was to provide his answer to others. No more. No less.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

#77 A Matter of Interpretation

"That night no Allied commander seriously feared a major German attack. Yet in Bastogne, Belgium, about twenty miles west of Chervaux, Middleton, whose VIII Corps comprised the bulk of the Ghost Front, was uneasy. A woman had been sent up that morning from the 28th Division. She told of seeing, just the night before, a mass of German troops behind the Seigfried Line east of Clervaux. And their tanks were twice as large as anything the Americans had. Middleton realized that if an attack did fall, his four divisions, two green, two exhausted - would be hard put to defend themselves. So he sent the woman on up the chain of command to his chief, Lieutenent General Courtney Hodges, the commander of the First Army.

But at the famous Belgian resort of Spa, Hodges was too occupied with the slow progress of his own attack toward the Roer Dams to be concerned. It was true that the week before, his intelligence officer, Colonel, 'Monk' Dickson, had surprised everyone by predicting there would soon be an all-out German offensive and the past few days had made a pest of himself by announcing that the attack might possible come where no one expected it - where it had come in 1870, 1914, and 1940 - in the Ardennes. Then at a briefing just the night before, Dickson's hunch had become a conviction as he pounded a map board and said with certainty, "It's the Ardennes!" Hodges' staff had advised the general not to take Dickson too seriously: Monk was a notorious pessimist; also he was overworked, and three days in Paris would perk him up a bit.

The 12th Army Group, which gave orders to Hodges, had also been displeased with Dickson's prediction. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley's intelligence officer announced in rebuttal: "It is now certain that attrition is steadily sapping the strength of German forces on the Western Front. Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) quickly joined Dickson's critics, Eisenhower's G2 issuing a report that the Germans were all but finished.

Even the British ridiculed fear of any enemy attack. That very afternoon Montgomery had stated flatly that Germans "cannot stage major offensive operations." In fact, things were so dull he asked Eisenhower if there was any objection to his going off to England next week. Reassured by this chorus of confidence from above, Hodges had kept busy with his own offensive. He went to sleep around midnight bothered only by a head cold."

"Battle : The Story of the Bulge", by John Toland (Chap 1 pages 10-11)

What followed is the 'Battle of the Bulge'. A desperate fight against a confluence of overwhelming force and horrible conditions that made the outcome questionable from the very outset. If not for the incredible tenacity of the Soldiers, some divine providence with the weather, and the sheer determination of the Allied command, the result of the 'Bulge' may have been one that ended in infamy instead of one that history has recalled so heroically.

If you serve, or have ever served, in the 101st Airborne Division, a central portion of the heraldry of that storied Division rests with the results of the understandings, interpretations, and decisions outlined above. The Division's headquarters building is named after Brigadier General Anthony MacAuliffe who, surrounded and outnumbered by the German army at Bastogne, famously replied "Nuts!" when offered the opportunity to surrender his forces to the Germans.

As I read those pages this week, I began to wonder what would have happened if someone had listened to the woman who spoke of masses of huge tanks, or if the various commands had paid heed to the over-tired Colonel Dickson? Could the battle that ensued have been avoided? Would the Allies have massed forces earlier and taken the fight to the Germans before coming so perilously close to defeat? Would all those people we lionize today still be considered heroes if the Germans had been successful? Why doesn't anyone know the name of 'Monk' Dickson? Shouldn't some credit be given to the man who got it right to begin with? And what of those who got it wrong and failed to pay attention to the pieces of information that were available, but that they didn't put together correctly or pay enough attention to? Do they shoulder any responsibility for the Soldiers who died because of the decisions they made?

I have been thinking about this in light of the COP Keating and COP Wanat reports that I wrote about in post # 70, "Hondo's Parting Gift". Beyond scale and scope, these two battles, the 'Bulge' and Wanat, have a lot in common. Undermanned and under resourced units. Thin units trying to cover vast amounts of territory. Commands whose priorities lie elsewhere. Staffs who have different interpretations of the situation. Desperate fights that ultimately require huge amounts of resources to repel the enemy. Heroism at the local level where men fought to hold their ground against overwhelming odds. And death. A lot of death and a lot of people injured. And yet the passage of time has changed our understandings to such a degree that the 'Bulge' is considered an iconic battle which demonstrates the best qualities of the American Soldier, and Wanat required 3 reports to put to rest the issue of culpability.

I wonder if the Internet and mass communication and the litigious mindset that is so prevalent today had existed in 1944 would we still see the 'Battle of the Bulge' the way we currently do? Would it still be considered an historic battle? Would the legends like Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Hodges still be seen the same way? If a parent of a dead Soldier in Bastogne had the power to press his case to the U.S. Senate, what would the outcome be? What if MacAuliffe had been over-run by the Germans and instead of his Soldiers simply becoming German prisoners they had been killed by the thousands? Would our headquarters building still bear his name?

These are important questions because they have immense impacts on how we lead and the consequences of the decisions we make. According to Toland, almost every senior leader in Europe got it wrong. The facts existed to indicate that the Germans were planning some form of large scale attack, but no one listened. No one listened to Col Dickson and to those far below him in the chain of command. Middleton was worried, but decided not to act independently on his concerns. Hodges ignored it because his own plan was faltering. Bradley's staff flatly rebuts Dickson's ideas. Montgomery wants to go on leave. Lives will be lost because of these choices. But because the outcome was ultimately successful, these errors in judgement go unnoticed. Had the outcome resulted in a major German victory, I wonder how we would view them then.

Leaders use their best judgments to make decisions. The higher up the chain of command you are, the more you must rely on the judgment of others to help inform your own. As each of these subordinates provides you facts, there must also be a recognition that they are being presented and informed through the prism of the person presenting them. They are being filtered by that person's knowledge, experience and judgement. And all that filtering can have a pronounced impact on your understanding of the 'ground truth'. This is something we need to pay attention to as we develop leaders at all levels. Not that every single Soldier's understanding of the situation is correct, or even valid, but that we, as leaders, must develop an awareness of the 'filtering' that is occurring as information is being presented to us. Someone is telling us something, but they really don't have a large enough context. Someone else is telling us something to enhance their personal standing in the organization. Someone else is telling us only what they think we want to hear. And someone else is saying something that no one else is even considering. All these views will be supported by facts. But only the leader must take all of them and form their own interpretation and make a decision.

What's critical is that the leader have access to all the disparate voices. They cannot be insulated from the ones that others find distasteful. They cannot be removed because of inarticulateness or coarseness. They cannot be ignored due to lack of stature. We must find ways to ensure that the 'ground truth' of the person pulling guard in a remote location in Afghanistan has the same access to the decision-maker as the staff officer that builds the briefing.

This access to various points of view is often termed transparency, or communication flattening. It makes all facts equal at first because it removes the idea that the hierarchy imposes a value on the information. All the facts from the Soldier on the ground go in one pile. The facts from the company or battalion staff go in another. The facts from the brigade go in another. The facts from the 'lone voice' go in yet another. To start, they are all of equal value. Only then can the leader have the greatest access to the various points of view that exist with his/her organization.

What does it take to remove the 'filtering' system? First, it takes leaders who are viscerally aware that the filters exist in the first place. Only with this awareness can structures be put in place that account for it. Second, it requires humility. The leader must be humble enough to understand that even their interpretation of the facts could be incorrect. Third, it requires a voice of dissent. There must be a mechanism for those in the minority opinion to be heard. Finally, and most importantly, it requires leaders whose single most prized quality for leadership is their judgment. Nothing else they may do, battles they may win, or accolades they may have earned, can outweigh the faith and trust the organization places in their judgment. Every leader development system the Army has should be focused at that singular purpose, increasing and developing the judgment of the leader. And in order to development judgment, we must start with development and understanding of the character of the individual. We must force them back into themselves to study what forms, and informs, their decision-making process. By doing that we can take a brand new Sergeant or Lieutenant, make them aware of their filters, then make them understand that the decisions they make are based in part upon information that is also being filtered. Lives depend on this awareness.

The 'Battle of the Bulge' begins with a series of major misjudgments. It is only through the incredible character of thousands of Soldiers that the battle turned out the way it did. I only hope the 'Battle of Wanat' is remembered the same way.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.