Celebrating a Veteran – Questioning our Assumptions

One of the favorite classes I teach is on giving feedback. It’s an art. And it’s a science, whose inner laws were taught me by my friend and mentor Mary Ann Hastings. I keep learning to “paint” with the feedback brush and to refine my understanding of the scientific laws of feedback. Last week I got a great lesson.

My undergraduates and I were practicing coaching, taking it from concept to real-time practice. I and most of them, I believe, feel pretty proud about the positive community we have created. But our purpose is not just to feel positive. It’s to feel good about each other while — and so that – we can grow in leadership skills. One student is not your average undergrad. Instead, he’s about 30, a retired sergeant who served multiple missions in the Middle East. When someone asked about coaching up– to a boss – I invited him to share how it worked in the army.

His first response was that they always hold AAR’s — After Action Reviews – so it’s common to share feedback and continuously learn; the bosses thus get near-instantaneous feedback. I wanted to narrow in. “But what about when you felt like you needed to give a lieutenant feedback in order to help him lead well. What would you say?” He replied, “I’d say, ‘Hey, L.T., can we grab a cup of coffee?” “Okay,” I continued, “and then what would say?” He replied, “I’d say L.T., you really fucked that up.” He went on to say that an LT (lieutenant) might have only been in action for 7 weeks after his schooling, and that he couldn’t afford to lose the respect of his troops. “I learned that the best way to be respected [by my command officer] was to be brutally honest.”

The class got a jolt and a laugh from the profanity, but we all got a lesson that the modern army is not all yes-sir, no-sir, but that it thrives on truth-telling and openness.

This young man has worked his way through PTSD; being a veteran ain’t all roses. But I hope this brief lesson he shared on management also indicates that there are some awesome vets who can contribute immensely to the work we do, as we all try to

Lead with our best self,

  • Happy Veteran’s Day Eve to my fellow vets… thanks for your service. And Dan, thanks… that’s the most creative f…..g way to make a couple of coaching points you’ve used. Lack of brutal honesty has led to disaster at the VA, and it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try in Washington.

    • WillHart,
      Maybe we should stop saying “brutal” honesty. To Mark John’s point above and my response to him, it conjures the NEED for DEFENSE. The sergeant’s feedback was strong, for sure, but I’m not sure we should say brutal. Brutal almost suggests a desire to hurt with the truth. The truth about the VA and veterans’ suicide IS a brutal fact, but if it’s delivered with brutality it will NEVER be heard. People who drop bombs in the name of “brutal honesty” are doing their own violence.

  • Please name some employers, an employee could speech this frankly to their superiors, without getting fired. Other government agencies for the same.

    • Mark John,
      You are skeptical. I get that. That is your challenge. If you don’t believe people can hear honest feedback, you will (wisely) not give it, or you will give it in a way that you will expect to get clobbered and you will help create that prophetic truth.
      If YOU believe feedback helps you. And if YOU believe you are giving feedback to help someone else. Then you can get to a place where you can give such candid feedback as the sergeant did. The point is not to push the frontier and drop f-bombs. The point is to — over time — create the level of trust in each other — trust that you want to HELP each other — that you connect with each other’s desire to grow, not each other’s need to defend themselves from attack on their vulnerable ego.
      No. It’s not easy. Yes. I gave you a really wild example.
      But yes, that IS real. MOST people I have worked with I HAVE had this level of honesty. It takes time and sensitivity and some wounding, but it’s worth the risk.

  • Dan, et al,
    Yes let’s drop the “Brutal” as that does connote looking for a fight.
    Let me try this. Mark Twain said “A half-truth is the highest form of cowardice.” And I’ll add my take; it’s also the verbal tender of people who don’t trust each other. When spin is applied regularly, trust is diminished. Perhaps a coaching technique could be a variation of the “Broken Window practice of policing. Broken windows (and other small infractions) are dealt with immediately so as not to have examples of undesirable behaviors visible to give people “permission” to go to the next level. So call people out when you sense spinning is becoming acceptable. Now I’ll reiterate the VA and Washington are examples of spinathons that have resulted in trust-free zones with disastrous results.

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