#113 The Invincibility Myth

I was talking to a friend of mine this week and she asked me what I felt had fundamentally changed about me over the last five years since the Black Hearts events took place. She asked me to identify those things that I was absolutely sure of and those things I was not. Had my core values or beliefs changed? Had my sense of self identification changed or am I still the same person I was - in terms of values and orientation - that I was earlier in my career?

On the surface, the answer to these seems pretty simple. Of course I'm different than I was 5 years ago. Everyone is. Nobody can retain exactly the same orientation that they possessed at a different period in their life. Especially in extremely difficult circumstances such as those were. But it's really not quite that easy. If your baseline values haven't changed, and your belief in who and what you are haven't changed, and your sense of right and wrong haven't changed, then fundamentally are you different today than you were 5, 10 or 15 years ago? And if so, why? The following is part of a chat exchange we shared. I think it's very relevant to the theme of today's post.

Her: "When there is a leadership failure, it is either a failure of competence or character."

Me: "For me, one could make the argument that it could be a competence failure, but not character. I guarantee that. I'm not perfect and have done things I regret, but my character is pretty much the only thing that has survived a lot of these last years."

Her: "Complete pride, impeccable character, questionable competence?"

Me: "Fair enough."

Her: "So that's where the doubt actually is. Not swept away by the pandemonium of the crowd, but that there were some actual missteps.."

Me: "No. There was no doubt then. The doubt now is unjustified (I am aware of that, just can't stop it) because I could not have known then what I know now."

Her: "Ok. So the failure of competence can only be seen through reflection?"

Me: "Yes. You can only know what you got right or wrong once the result is known. You go into something believing that you are doing X to achieve Y. Only after you do it can you see your actions clearly."

Her: "Should you have known those things at the time? Would a group of your peers with comparable training and experience have made similar decisions?"

Me: "Probably. But the circumstances were almost so unique that there is really nothing to compare it to. That probably applies to part two of your question."

Her: "I'm just going after what parts you're absolutely sure about, and what parts feel not as solid."

Me: "I'm sure that I made right and sound tactical decisions. I'm sure that had the rape/murder not happened the rehabilitation of that platoon would have happened on my watch. I'm sure that the enemy got a vote on one occasion prompted by the actions of a few people that never allowed that chance to happen."

To me, the key part of that exchange is the statement, "There was no doubt then."

In early 2005 I was invincible. I had absolute faith in myself and my ability to be successful in the Army. I truly believed that I knew how to lead Soldiers and that my entire decision making process was correct every time, all the time. That may be arrogant, but that arrogance was honestly come by. The Army created it. It planted a seed through promotion, opportunity and schooling, nursed it through its' infancy and watched it grow into adulthood. And it kept validating it every step of the way. Graducation from this school means you are in the top 10% of all infantrymen. Getting inducted into that club places you in the top 5% of all Noncommissioned Officers. Being selected for promotion earlier than your peers means that you are more competent than they are based upon the Army's criteria for excellence. It is a reaffirming system. It is a concrete reality reflected by awards, certificates, and tangible things to hang on a wall that reflect back to you your sense of complete understanding of your world. It's what allows you to believe your own bullshit and it is very difficult to get anyone - especially yourself - to look beyond it and see if there is something more.

This invincibility myth pervades the entire Army culture and has an amazing power to shape how we think, act and behave. It helps write our doctrine, inform the way we communicate and even molds our response mechanisms. In many ways, we have become a prisoner of our own invention. We have an ethic of service characterized by complete devotion to the Army's needs (which we sell as the Nation's needs - just wondering if the Nation knows how many Power Point slides it creates each day!). Those we serve are led to believe that we have an answer for every question, a solution to every problem, and our solutions and answers will be correct every single time. We are the Army and we do not make mistakes, and we do not fail. Why? Because we have systems in place to prevent failure, we have the best leader development system the world can produce, and we are so dedicated to getting it right that we can continually work on a problem until it is solved. We will never quit. We endure. We redouble our efforts. We are Supermen. We are invincible. And you, the early promoted, well decorated, oft-awarded young man or woman, you are the best of the best. Stick with us kid and you'll go far.

It's a myth. And when the world you thought to be made of concrete turns out to be only so much smoke and mirrors, the results can be devastating. For the past 5 years, I have been slowly trying to make my way back to finding those things that I am sure of. Slowly trying to stake down what I know to be absolutely true about me, versus those things that were falsely created by my inability to properly orient to my surroundings. The price to be paid for me believing my own bullshit.

After 2006, once all labels were in place -that I was a leadership failure, responsible for getting people needlessly killed etc, a new reality started to get formed. And just like the previous one based on invincibility, this new one, built on indecision, fear, and paranoia took hold and gained its' own momentum and became a new self-definition. In fact, it is no more real than the previous model, but it's root system runs just as deep and - in many ways - is much more difficult to break hold of precisely because the invincibility model is so pervasive throughout our culture.

The Army speaks a lot about self-awareness. Everywhere you turn, you'll find people saying that good, successful leaders are self-aware. That they understand who they are. That they possess a solid moral/ethical/behavioral ethic that is unshakeable. This is the message that gets sent over and over:

You came to us with a set of values. We (the Army) molded you, trained you, rewarded you, and developed you. We have co-opted your values (mostly without you knowing it happened) and slowly replaced them with our own until you are a walking, talking example of invincibility in action. But please don't look too far beneath that paper thin veneer of invincibility we have so carefully constructed. Don't ask yourself the really hard questions about your character, your true strengths and weaknesses, your true, personally immutable, value system. Don't pay any attention to your own doubts. And please don't listen to them as warning signs. Please don't do that. Because if you do, you might find out that our carefully crafted system is a house of cards and that we need it to be that way in order to ensure that when you screw up we can easily re-label you and protect ourselves at the same time.

If we truly want to inform and influence the leader development discussion, a lot more focus will have to go into getting people to know who they are - those baseline things that cannot be surrendered at any point, for anyone, under any circumstances. While the answers to those questions will be different for each of us (another thing the institution doesn't like) ultimately, they will provide the Army with stronger leaders. People who's character and leadership style is formed not by the fake concrete of the current system, but by an unshakeable faith in their understanding of who they are. The only problem with this is that we often cannot find our true selves until a crisis unfolds. And in the middle of a crisis is not the time to discover weaknesses and cracks in the invincibility armor.

People lead and follow other people. For better or for worse. From Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler, people follow others all along the spectrum. And what often attracts them to that person is the unshakeable sense they possess in the rightness of the cause and their ability to provide a purpose and a method to achieve it.

When we started talking, my friend said that it seemed as if I had shackled myself to the events of 2005-2006 and that I needed to put down that weight. She is correct. Although I cannot always see it clearly - nor do I possess the ability to completely disentangle myself from it right now, the failure myth is as equally powerful as the success myth. We all should be careful to become trapped by one or the other. That is exactly what happened to me. I share it with you in the sincere hope that you never have to suffer to learn that lesson. I'm not sure if that is possible since it is only in the crucible of a difficult challenge that some revelations are made clear, but I do want to try. If not to protect you from harm or tough times, then only to ensure that you have thought enough about who and what you are, that you can face them with a calm assurance that you have the tools you need to withstand them.

Slowly, I am putting the Black Hearts saga down. I can no longer only define myself by that one period. My life is a totality of many events, of which that is only one. An important one to be sure, but only one. And while that may be obvious to you, let me tell you that it came as somewhat of a surprise to me. Because of the success of my early career and the events and aftermath of that time, I have let the Army define me twice. Maybe the time has come to figure out how I define me. I'll probably need some help because the root systems are so strong, but neither the invincibility self-definition nor the failure self-definition are correct. The are both myths. I'm beginning to see that clearly now and the road ahead suddenly seems a lot more bright.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe your best posting to date and most emotionally powerful....as we have discussed before, we talk a great deal about the "self" and importance of self-awareness in terms of being a good leaders, but I have yet to see any program or class that actually teaches someone how to do it...or what it really is...because if we did, than there would be a good chance of eliminating or managing our invincibility.....

    Most humans cannot see themselves in reality (looking through a mirror)....it normally takes a catostrophic event (death, DUI/drug OD, loss of job/all money, ugly divorce, alcohol 'event', victim of violent crime, near death illness, abuse, etc) in one's life to help them "see" them for what they really are....or get a real perspective on life.....in the world of drug and alcohol abuse they use the term "intervention"...

    I think to get to the level of self-awareness that we all need to have, we need help from trusted others.....I call it the "no" person in our life, as opposed to the "yes" person...

    maybe we just can't collectively admit to ourselves that we don't do "self-awareness" very well....

    my definition of self-awareness is "the intentional and habitual monitoring of one's thoughts, feelings, and emotions." The thought part of this involves meta-cognition (thinking about your own thinking and why you are thinking that way)

    clearly for years and years the Army has not done the "feeling and emotions" piece of this definition....but after 10 years of war the Army has taken steps to address this issue....in terms of being honest with someone when they ask a Soldier "how are you feeling?".... due in part to the PTSD and suicide issues.....obviously the macho and invincibility part of the equation gets in the way.....

    Fen, in reality you are lucky....you have grown more in the last 5-6 years than most people (especially adults) do in a life-time....you know more about self-awareness then most people will ever know....you are a life-long learner which many people say they are (or do) but you are doing it....you should be given an honorary PhD in leadership (pick your own school!!).....you are wise way beyond your years and have so much knowledge to share that others can benefit from....but my fear is that what you have to share most people won't or can't understand because they are invincible.....