#114 Learning From Hamlet

"There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so."

- William Shakespeare

At various times throughout throughout my writing, I have talked about Boyd's second O in the OODA Cycle, Orientation. I have made the claim over and over that Orientation is the critical step to gaining insight into how people view their world, and that how they view their world has a direct effect on how they lead others. I have talked about it in terms of filters. We all have filters that we use to navigate our environment and those filters are particular to every one of us. Therefore, no two people can have the exact same understanding of something even if they were standing side-by-side staring at it. There are a lot of things that can happen in that filtering/orienting gap.

This has always seemed to me to be a key understanding in leadership - and one that we totally overlook in training. A leader needs to have an awareness about why they see their world the way they do, and they need to understand that others - subordinates or superiors - cannot and likely will not view it the same way. Not in the beginning at least. The job of the leader is to bring those disparate understandings together in order to accomplish the assigned mission.

The past week has been a personally challenging one for me and I have learned a lot about myself in an extremely short period of time. I am starting to become very aware of the power of the filters in my own life. And while some of this discovery is difficult, ultimately it will enhance me both personally and professionally. Some of my journey is intensely private and will not appear here because it does not belong here. There are parts however that do belong - especially with regard to how we train leaders in the Army.

A friend of mine, reacting to last weeks post, introduced me to two behavioral concepts that have direct bearing on this discussion both personally and professionally. The first is called Irrational Thinking - a set of defense mechanism filters that affect future decisions, and the second is a school of thought and therapeutic technique called Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT). Together they form a powerful set of self-awareness and leader awareness tools.

Irrational Thinking is something we all do to one degree or another and generally has it's origins in some form of fatalistic, permanent, and stationary idea about people, events, or things that affect our lives. It is a natural occurrence. Something negative happens and we form a defense against it. If this, then that. If something bad happens to me, and it is painful, then I start dropping filters in place to protect myself from its pain if/when it shows up again. Another option is found in the fear that if I do not accomplish this task to perfection then XYZ will be the outcome. And that outcome is bad, is permanent and will define me forever. There are multiple sub-categories of Irrational Thinking which I highlighted below. Personally, all that matters for this conversation is that once armed with the knowledge of Irrational Thinking's existence and beginning to see how it acts to filter my world, things started to become a lot more clear. My long struggle to come to grips with Black Hearts is largely a text book case study in Irrational Thinking.

The second concept is Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT). Leaving the therapy part alone for a minute and concentrating only on the school of thought portion consider the following from Wikipedia:

"One of the fundamental premises of REBT is that humans, in most cases, do not merely get upset by unfortunate adversities, but also by how they construct their views of reality through their language, evaluative beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others. In REBT, clients usually learn and begin to apply this premise by learning the A-B-C-model of psychological disturbance and change. The A-B-C model states that it normally is not merely an A, adversity (or activating event) that contributes to disturbed and dysfunctional emotional and behavioral Cs, consequences, but also what people B, believe about the A, adversity. A, adversity can be either an external situation or a thought or other kind of internal event, and it can refer to an event in the past, present, or future."

To put it plainly, REBT accepts that every time something happens (a triggering event) it is not only the act that matters. In fact, the act is neutral until assigned a value by the individual (Hamlet's quotation above). The resulting Orientation is the outcome of the Act as effected by the Value assigned.

REBT also accepts that emotion, reason, and action are not separate boxes within us, but all are mixed together in varying degrees and that they constantly interact with each other to create new understandings of our reality and environment.

While this all might sound really complicated so far, bear with it for a moment....

I am deployed and attacked by a civilian. They might be an insurgent. But I cannot know that for sure. All I know is that they do not wear a uniform. The attack produces fear and anger. The fear and anger lead to hatred. Hatred leads to the over-generalization that all civilians are evil. The over-generalization leads to there only being one train of thought that I allow myself when viewing civilians on the battlefield (i.e.that all civilians want to do me harm). If the attack itself is the trigger, how does it directly lead to an absolute Orientation that all civilians are evil? The reality is that is doesn't. What does allow that to happen are the intermediate emotions of fear and anger that get between the act and the outcome. If we taught leaders to recognize that pattern in themselves and others, then the Orientation (how they filter the problem) changes.

Why does all this matter? Consider for a second what could happen if we taught REBT in leader development schools, not as a post deployment therapy technique (although there would are benefits to that as well), but rather as a 'how' to think method for leader development. If we could show people that the emotions that drive many of their actions are helping to predetermine and influence some outcomes, then we might be able to mitigate both negative Soldier actions, and emotional trauma that many Soldiers are face upon returning home. Conversely, their positively based emotions can be used to increase Soldier resiliency both predeployment and during it when they are confronted with the vagaries of war.

An example: Was it rational to believe in 2001 that all Iraqis would automatically greet us as liberators and harbingers of freedom? That they would patiently wait for the new life that everybody said would follow with the removal of Saddam Hussein? No. It wasn't. However, since we did not approach the situation rationally, and then placed our behavioral filters in between the action and the outcome, what happened? When the outcome was incongruent with the action, we had no way to reorient ourselves and that led to other behaviors that influenced the war significantly from 2003 - 2007.

Personally, while my introduction to REBT is new, and I don't yet have a full understanding of it in practice, it seems instinctual to me that it helps inform and flesh out the Orientation portion of the OODA cycle. As Boyd pointed out, one's Orientation to a situation is critical to success or failure. It has to be gotten right and whoever can do that fastest will get to the Act portion more quickly and begin to effect the enemy before they can react. What slows people down in OODA is having to sort through all the filters, and find a common language to work from. REBT is a method of doing that.

The largest single thought process that works against REBT however, is probably Irrational Thought. In a document I was sent, some of the ways that Irrational Thought works are as follows:

Catastrophic Thinking - Blowing negative events or feelings way out of proportion.

Black and White Thinking - Viewing everything in terms of absolutes.

Magnifying the Negative - Dwelling on the negative impacts of something and making it seem much larger than the positive.

Overgeneralizing - Assuming that something that happened at one time or in one situation will continue to happen in all places and all situations.

Personalizing - Assuming the blame for something you might have influenced but was not totally under your control.

If you take the Irrational Thoughts statements above and let them go unabated, you will eventually run into almost every Soldier and leader issue we have faced for the last decade. However, if we as an institution were to teach and apply REBT principles in the school house and in the operational force, we would then have a method of counter-acting the negative influence of Irrational Thought and focus people more completely on the common language of the mission and commander's intent.

My recognition of how Irrational Thought has effected me for the last 5 years has been profound. The introduction to REBT as a thought generating process has left me with hope that I now have a method of orienting myself correctly to any situation that might arise. While the personal process is slow and painful right now, it holds promise as both a way to recover in a post-deployment setting and as a thought mechanism we can introduce to the schoolhouses to increase leader and Soldier self-awareness.

In the decentralized world of Army operations and instant communications that we live in, the actions of one individual can often have large consequences very quickly. If we had a method of helping leaders and Soldiers to stay more correctly, more rationally, oriented I wonder if some of the more negative actions might possibly have been avoided?

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Spot on.....these techniques are examples of how to teach self-awareness and self-regulation....which help leaders think about how they are thinking and why they are thinking that way...

    tangible (hard) techniques/skills we can teach leaders to intentionally and habitually practice which can/should make them better leaders and improve their ability to think and reason...


  2. Jeff,

    Whoever your friend is that’s introducing you to these methods and terminology seems to be “spot-on” in defining what’s going on in many more ways than one...

    Rational emotional behavior therapy (‘REBT’) views human beings as ‘responsibly hedonistic’ in the sense that they strive to remain alive and to achieve some degree of happiness.

    On the other hand, it can also be thought that humans are vulnerable to taking on irrational beliefs and behaviors which stand in the way of their achieving their goals and purposes.

    A lot of times these beliefs and behaviors take the form of dogmatic ways of thinking where we feel that we absolutely have to act this way, and they contrast with rational and flexible desires, wishes, preferences and wants.

    During my research of REBT, I found that one person, after suffering a loss, may think that it was unfortunate that this loss happened, albeit there is no actual reason why it should not have occurred. It is tragic that it happened, but it is not debilitating enough whereas I cannot function normally, so I’ll put this behind me and drive on.

    Another person may look at the same situation completely different, such as; the loss should not have happened, and it is horrific that it did. The outcomes of this event are intolerable, and I cannot continue to function normally. So this person develops what you described as a generalization of the entire environment they’re operating in, as well as the people there are associated with it, and all of them are lumped into this category of “evil”.

    The first person’s response is apt to lead to sadness, which is a completely healthy emotion, but the second person may be travelling down the road to severe depression, which is, unfortunately, what we’re seeing over and over again as these wars progress.

    The upside to all of this is that, now that we’re beginning to see and understand the problem, certain steps can be taken to mitigate it. REBT, first of all, is not a “black and white” solution set, because it maintains that everyone handles issues differently, but it also maintains that people have the power to profoundly change their own philosophies, and thereby changing their state of psychological health.

    Jeff, I believe you’ve sighted in on the underlying solution where leaders need to be taught this, perhaps in the schoolhouse, but beyond as well. If they can recognize the signs, perhaps they can mitigate before these emotions take hold....Perhaps more emphasis on it during debriefs?

    The presence of extreme philosophies can make all the difference between healthy negative emotions (such as sadness or regret or concern) and unhealthy negative emotions (such as depression or guilt or anxiety)....If leaders can recognize these signs, or emphasize the former, perhaps we would have fewer soldiers suffering these outcomes...When I say “leaders”, I mean ALL leadership, because squad leaders, platoon sergeants, platoon leaders, and even company and battalion commanders may experience these negativities as well, so it will be a constant battle, but you may be on to something here Fen!!

    As always, thank you for your writings.



  3. He for sure is on to something which is the in the weeds "how to" of self-awareness and self-regulation....both requirements for knowing and managing "the self", which is a requirement for being the best leader one can be....

    great stuff!


  4. JD and Bob - Thanks for replying. I do believe that REBT as a school of thought, would work. I am learning through my own journey that removing the Irrational Thought patterns is probably more critical. If you look at the definitions above, you can almost fine the Army culture right there: Black and White thinking...Catastrophic (Worst case scenario) thinking....Over generalizing.....the entire SOP structure....Personalizing...the culture of "I am responsible/accountable and must take on the emotional weight for everything my unit does or fails to do.

    Irrational Thinking as a cultural norm eats away systematically at Soldier discipline and individual accountability and concentration on the mission of service to the Nation.



  5. Disclaimer: My following post is more of an advice column than an actual comment.

    I am glad your friend had you read about REBT. However, like any therapist should, do not pigeon hole yourself into just one school of theoretical thought. Branch out into other theories and also look into their origins. There are many different therapeutic concepts that flow seamlessly into leadership principals, and can be instructed in leader development courses.

    One the best assignments I received during grad school was to take multiple theories and blend them into my own. One needs to do this as various aspects of an approach may not blend with your communication or personal styles.

    Here are a few others that may interest readers, especially since REBT seems to have been a nice hit:

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
    Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
    Motivational Interviewing
    - www.motivationalinterview.org
    Non Violent Communication
    - www.cnvc.org
    Carl Rogers

    Ultimately, the fundamental principal all leaders need to develop is mindfulness. This basically means, keeping your mind open to everything, even those items that seem non-applicaable. For some additional information review:
    Thich Nhat Hanh
    - "Art of Power"
    Sun Tzu
    - Art of War

  6. Tim - No issues. I wasn't necessarily focusing in on the 'therapy' side of REBT, but much more so on the 'thought process' side. I think that the idea of of being able recognize internal filters or impediments to seeing yourself and the situation as objectively as possible have clear benefits to any leader development program. Yes, other methods of critical thought development are certainly as valid as this one. The problem seems to me to be that the Army doesn't choose any program and assumes that each individual possesses these skillsets inherently, which some do, but many do not. Any form of analytical, objective thought structuring or development would certainly pay dividends once deployed. Self awareness in the sense of being aware of Irrational Thinking also seems to me to be one method of removing untrue or unrelated causal connections to the decision making process. Thanks for including the other links as well. They can only help further the discussion.