When to swim with rats

I was once part of the greatest Marine battalion on earth. Trust me. Well, it was the greatest. Then we had a change of command and a new unit leadership came on board which was totally opposite of the previous commander and his vision. The new leadership crew had an odd fascination with the mundane. Rather than technical skill, intrinsic communication, deep knowledge of the art of war, the new focus became uniform preparation, the precision of haircuts, and the proper greetings of the day. “Brilliance in the basics!” was the mantra.

As I watched orders come in for senior leader after senior leader to leave the unit, many well before the traditional transition point one would expect, as a young lieutenant I approached one of the highest ranking enlisted in the unit and observed how odd it seemed that all these leaders were suddenly leaving. “Sir”, he said, “you’ve heard of rats jumping off a ship that’s about to sink. This is one of those cases where you’re seeing the big rats jumping and it’s time to get yourself the **** overboard.”

How right he was. It didn’t take long to realize that the new team focused on the mundane because they didn’t have the intellect or connectedness with each other to delve into the grey areas of human experience together. You see, dress codes, politeness, and policy manuals are predictable and safe. But they don’t bring growth or excellence. As our unit was a combat unit engaged in warfighting so unusual so as to be described as “learning to eat soup with a knife”, focus on parade readiness and so forth was a safe escape from the hard, ambiguous realities that needed to be dealt with. The young warfighters, many who had been on the 5th and 6th combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, knew snappy uniform items did not prepare anyone for that world. They were wise and experienced.

To massacre a quote by a man smarter than me, here is what happened: The men who shut their mouths and dumbly nodded along at the latest powerpoint brief about drill formations received commendations and promotions, while the men who delighted the lower ranks by speaking truthfully about the reality-based training needed got reprimands. It was the truest distinction between management and leadership I have ever seen. I learned that leaders are original, inventive, movers and shakers, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that confuse and overwhelm the enemy in war and corporate HQ in peace. But managers are safe, conservative and predictable. They conform to the established organization, are always on the side of the “A team” and are dedicated to the establishment, not the mission.

It’s these guys who cause us to forget why our leadership principles are up on the wall in the first place.

I give you an example. I worked for a place where an overpowered corporate lawyer had say in virtually every decision made. His reach was incredible. Unfortunately, his first major travail as a young lawyer decades before had been a disaster caused by loose standards. Thousands died. After that point, every choice was viewed through the lens of worst possible outcomes. As a result of his risk aversion, terminations that should’ve been made years before were not made because of this amorphous and undefinable shadow monster called “risk”; daring business plans were not executed because hearts might be wounded, labor boards called, and pearls clutched. The stagnated cesspool of brash underperformers in a company which had no purpose defied description. I called it “cesspression” because we lived in a cesspool of ne’er-do-wells with no avenue to alleviate our depression. It was awful.

I took it upon myself to terminate several of the underperformers in my region for:

  • falsifying leave documents
  • not performing up to standards
  • lying on and falsifying official company records
  • threatening a manager with “an ass beating”

Definitely cream of the crop.

Of course, the lawyer had seizures and end-of-time apocalyptic visions. Of course, none of the doomsday vision even remotely came to fruition. The California Department of Labor appeals board—those randy pro-business jerks— told the guys to get lost. But the lawyer did not learn. Instead, he doubled down and increased his obsession with risk avoidance.

In view of all this, the company was truly puzzled as to why it couldn’t attract and retain young talent. I tactfully explained that the kids these days are not hip on cesspressions. After a bit, I was told that I was hurting the tender feelings of executives who wanted to imagine that people under 30 lacked work ethic and that was why we could find none fit to be part of us. Negligence in their upbringings, basically. Further, I was told I had just better be quiet because. Yes, because. Mime-like, passionate as I was, I became quiet. And then I left.  As did others.

I think every organization goes from a place of growth to stability to stagnation and finally death. Some don’t die, they just become corporate-sized extras in “The Walking Dead”. I do not know how to stop it other than to punish it. When organizations start hiring people who favor the safe feels of stability over the life inducing energy of innovation, daring, risk, and reward, the leaders need to fight back until they lose the culture war. Then they need to leave to a new company which favors their view of the world. The old company will slouch into cesspressions and the new company will get an adrenaline shot.

A great culture is the goose that lays the golden egg. Once a culture is mired in risk aversion, revenues and forward momentum you see come from it is residual energy. But it’ll stop.

Then it’s time then to join the rats for a swim.

About Jake

Veteran, professional career coach, resume writer, LinkedIn builder.

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