Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

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Urban Legends, Myths, and the Irrational Tendency to Ignore Facts

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

A few months ago I attended a High School soccer match downtown which was scheduled to end just in time to get the spectators (who were largely from the suburbs) out into afternoon traffic. As the game wound down the usual debate began amongst the local traffic experts sitting in the stands about how to make the 25 mile drive back to our home town. “Take I-40 straight to 67 then go on up,” says one. “You’ll be stuck for an hour that way. Better to go through town and up I-30,” retorts another expert. “I never go that way at this time of day! It’s sure to be backed up,” says a third. I watched in fascination as these guys speculated as to the likelihood of traffic delays and the usual traffic patterns. No consensus was found and I was interested as to whether this was going to turn into a live experiment after the game.

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Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

Now I’m not saying I’m the best youth soccer coach out there. I’m saying coaching from the sidelines is counterproductive and if you aren’t willing to put in the time between games you haven’t earned the right to coach your kid during the game. (Note to sideline parents: read that last sentence again and either pitch in at practice or pipe down during the game. Your player can’t listen to both of us at the same time and I actually know the game plan.)

So I started to learn to coach. I read up-teen books and watched as many videos, and even attended USA Soccer’s licensing program. I got better at it.

One of the things all the professionals emphasize is the importance of individual skills. At younger ages, they teach individual skills even at the expense of team skills. Footwork, shooting, individual defending… these are primary. Tactics and moving as a team is secondary as these are advanced skills that kids can learn later, and build upon the individual skills. This is the sine qua non of youth soccer training, at least according to the experts.

It is also a problem, and explains a lot about American soccer and about the modern workforce.

Kids who are only focused on their own skills pay a lot of attention to what is happening on the ground in front of them when they have the ball, and not much else. You can watch it on any youth soccer field.

Here is what I observed last weekend. When the ball arrived at little Johnny’s feet, his head automatically dropped as his focus shifted. He knew roughly where the goal was because he was looking at it before the ball arrived, but he won’t see it again any time soon. He began to dribble towards the opponent’s goal, vaguely acknowledging the shouts from the crowd and teammates, but only seeing what was in his peripheral vision. His eyes were glued to the ball.

Despite the fact that the defense had shifted all of their players to his side of the field and he was about to be surrounded, Johnny didn’t have a clue. He also couldn’t seem to hear or see his open teammate on the other side of the field who was in a good scoring position. He was fixated on his own stuff.

Now Johnny is a pretty good dribbler, but very few kids can get through 4 or 5 defenders. Johnny isn’t one of those kids. He, predictably, lost the ball and the other team began their counter-attack.

Johnny’s coaches have failed him because he never learned to dribble with his head up. Nor was he taught to “look off the ball” to see what else is going on. When you are focused on your own stuff so intently, you don’t see what has changed on the field. How have your teammates adjusted? How has the opposing team changed? Where exactly are you on the field? These things are nearly invisible to Johnny and his ilk as they focus on themselves.

Some people never outgrow this tendency.

I have seen company commanders “solve” their problem by pushing it into someone else’s sector. I have seen battalion commanders declare victory in their own area even though their momentary success contributed nothing to the brigade’s mission. I have seen professional, senior leaders focus on the task at their feet and fail to “look off the ball” and see how their actions impact their teammates, their opponents, and the field.

I have learned that teaching soccer players at the earliest opportunity to dribble with their heads up makes a huge difference in the long run. When they see how their actions are affecting the game they can make better, more creative decisions about how to contribute to the team’s success. Teaching Lieutenants and Sergeants to lift their head to see the environment, their teammates and adversaries while accomplishing their tasks pays incalculable dividends later. Teaching junior managers and leaders throughout any organization to see where they fit into the bigger picture, and where their actions support the organization’s overall mission and vision is essential to maximizing each person’s potential. It will help people see where they need to act outside their job description to contribute to your organization’s success.

It’s very difficult to get people to look off the ball and put their individual effort (or their section’s, division’s, etc.) second to the overall mission and vision. It is nearly impossible if they are rewarded their entire careers for being great individual achievers. If team play is secondary to personal accomplishment you will have a difficult time getting teams of teams to operate as a mutually supporting organization focused on an overarching vision.

Teach your people to dribble with their heads up from the start, and you will reap the benefits for a long time to come.


Potato Peelers and a Culture of Innovation

spudsIn the summer of 2013 I went to work with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in DC. The group was set up to do some innovative thinking and produce some ideas of value to the CSA and the Army. The director of the SSG at the time was a retired US Army Colonel with a PhD named Dave. When my cohort first arrived at the SSG, Dave told us a story about why we were there that has stuck with me ever since.

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Walking on the Grass: Abandon Outdated Constraints

As a young captain I was privileged to serve on the staff at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle is a beautiful post with a rich history, and I truly enjoyed being in that environment. Among the most impressive buildings there is Upton Hall which has an interesting history of its own. At the time I served there it housed the Military History Institute, and sported a beautiful green lawn that would be the envy of many golf courses. In the corner of this pristine lawn stood a small, obscure sign that read, “Please walk on the grass.”

The first time I saw it I did a double take. Walk on the grass? Wasn’t this an Army post? Every private and every cadet is taught from the very beginning not to walk on the grass. Why in the world would this sign be there? Continue reading


Stamp Out Stupid


I heard this story a few years ago and have no clue who the folks involved are, but recognize the value of the lesson here…

In the late 1980s a graduate student studying military training spent a day observing an artillery crew going through crew drills. She spent hours watching the crew prepare, load and fire their cannon. The crew followed each and every step perfectly, showing exceptional discipline and training. The graduate student mapped the purpose of each step to her understanding of the gun, and the needs of the crew. Every step made sense to her… the swabbing of the barrel, the loading of the explosive charges, the positioning of every soldier on the crew… it all made sense. All of the movements were economical, purposeful, and important. All but one.

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Knowing when to tap and when to keep rolling: Are you quitting too early?

As a battalion Executive Officer I had a robust physical training program for my staff. It included functional fitness, sport, and combatives. I always liked combatives, but I never had any real training in grappling. So I would get out there and flounder around with my staff and do my best. During the boxing training I did fine, but during the ground training I was truly making it up as I went, and it showed. After getting twisted up by my supply chief one morning (which included an all-expenses-paid visit to the ER and a dashing neck brace) I vowed I wouldn’t “roll” with people bigger than me until I learned how to do it right.

I moved to another job soon after that, and, as luck would have it, they had a great combatives program. I took them up on their offer to train jiu jitsu a couple of times a week. The first thing I learned is to leave your ego at the edge of the mat. The second (which goes hand in hand with the first) is to “tap out” when someone has you in a submission, preferably before you get injured. During my first week in class I got paired up with a very large, well-trained Special Forces captain. “Great,” I thought. “This is going to be fun…”

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