Veterans

Stupid and In Charge: The Anti-Fragile Experience of the Junior Officer

I recently finished reading Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The title and sub get you pretty close to the point of the book in which authors Haidt (psychologist) and Lukianoff (lawyer and writer) explore the impact of the modern American sociopolitical environment on today’s college aged adults.  In it, Haidt and Lukianoff build on a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2014 book Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain From Disorder.

The anti-fragility idea starts with the common adage, that which does not kill something, makes it strongerThings that are fragile are easy to break or can be permanently damaged when stressed. That which is anti-fragile will not break, but instead benefits or even depends on stress.

The world around us is made up of the anti-fragile or it wouldn’t have lasted is the core of Taleb’s broader message.

Humans, especially children, are anti-fragile, within reason of course. Assault, abuse, actual physical trauma are exclusions. We learn and grow in resilience by living through the stress of trial and error or relying on ourselves to face things in our environment we find disagreeable. If denied the opportunity in youth, we lack the ability to cope with the world we’ll live in as adults. The point isn’t to make things unnecessarily hard for young people. Or to be intentionally cruel in hopes to toughen them up. The goal is a focus on preparing the child for the road, and not the road for the child.

Haidt and Lukianoff argue that is not happening today. And we’re all going to be worse off for it.

I finished the book which is some level of endorsement. I found the psychological principles to square with some of my personal experiences. I haven’t spent measurable time on a college campus in at least a decade though so I can’t judge their case studies as representative of a broader norm.

The authors are somewhat loose with the outcomes they assign to things though. A generation is like this because of that sort of stuff.

Entire generations aren’t as easily characterized by the broad symptoms most narratives require. And the complex systems that could truly prove causal likely won’t fit into a dozen chapters.

The boomer generation’s perceived inability to wander through whatever phase of life they’ve reached without extreme excess isn’t easily assigned to simply being raised by quiet alcoholic WWII vets, though plenty have tried. Both outcome and input are broad generalizations of complex systems. The type of thinking that sells books. But doesn’t solve problems, though the solutions section of the book was substantial.

A  reflection on my own experiences with the grand anti-fragility experiment that is military service brings the term down to a more manageable example. Narrowing even more, the example of the junior officer, or JO as we called them, is exemplary in a way that is worth unpacking a bit.

Those in the hiring business would do well to find a former JO and file the justification under proven anti-fragile. A few decades removed from the experience and with some time outside the uniform behind me, I can’t help but thinking that what I did was both crazy and critical to my development as a well formed human, proving, to some small degree, the anti-fragility thesis.

The JO shows up wherever he or she is, with some vetting, some basic schooling and zero practical real world experience at the job, war or life in general.

None of that is particularly remarkable for any 23 year old in any walk of life. What’s remarkable about the JO though, is that someone puts them in charge of complex, important and dangerous things.

Immediately.

It’s neither prepare the child for the road nor the road for the child. It’s drop the kid off at the edge of town and hope for the best.

I’ve not found the same boldness of process and trust in young leadership outside of the military. Hundreds of years of doing the same thing has enabled unique resolve in a less than intuitive activity. Such is the military in a nutshell. When I transitioned into the corporate world, I found it strange that people cared whether or not I had experience doing something before they paid me to do it for them when clearly it never mattered to my employer before.

For the first four to six years of life as an officer, the JO is assigned to lead men and women with much more experience in dynamic, high risk environments they’ve never seen before and within which they have no idea how to live. By the time a JO wanders out of of junior officer territory and into mid-grade, where one has actually started to get one’s arms around things, they’ve been all over the planet, leading people through ridiculous things for the better part of a decade.

A pattern persists:

Monumental screw ups. Many.

These failures are not a problem to fix. They’re a tool to depend on.

The common stories of the JO are not of glory and heroism. They are long lists of things they’ve broken or crashed, exercises they ruined or times the old man ripped him or her a new one for doing something stupid. These stories perpetuate because we all lived to fight another day, better and wiser than we once were. The self inflicted scars are badges of honor. It is one of the purest example of anti-fragility one can find. The common encouragement that one day you will laugh at this over a beer is proof. The downside, failure, is priced in. Learning is the upside. And what’s learned is pure personal development gold.

Things like, how to fake not being overwhelmed. Just talk quietly and move slowly no matter how crazy things get. It’s an art.

Or how to deliver the bad news. Because there is lots and it’s all your fault. Always. The facts + a plan = getting out of the room alive.

How to know what the boss needs to know. How to know what the boss doesn’t need to know. And just how fun it is when you get that wrong.

That lying actually is one of the worst things you can do. Turns out the silly honor code they jammed down my throat at Annapolis was right. Because stupid, motivated and honest actually is useful. Stupid, motivated and dishonest is a roadside bomb. And the truth always comes out.

Related…don’t do things you or the mission won’t survive if the truth came out.

How to be in on the joke. Because you are one. You’re in charge of people smarter than you at their job, more experienced in life and usually cooler with better ink. And they’re allowing you to lead them. Let them know you get it. Let them give you the answers. And let them know you know you’re stupid.

But you’re still in charge.

Vulnerability strengthens your hand. Corporate leadership books will tell you that but I learned it by being laughed at behind my back as a JO. The only choice I had was to laugh with them a bit.

Lastly, that you’re not better than they are. In fact, you’re worse. Way worse. As a JO, it’s not close. But everyone gets that someone has to be in charge. And that to some degree, you’re just the stiff that got stuck with it. Most you lead are happy it’s not them.  Pretending you’re Captain America gets you duct taped to the ceiling…I’ve heard…

This list isn’t exhaustive. There are more. And some that should only be shared between bar stools.

I don’t miss much about the old life. But I do miss being “The LT”. It taught me to look at the world differently. To roll with the punches more. To appreciate the small gains and not sweat the failures. And to be less sensitive to criticism. If it’s possible while being terrible at so much of the job anything is. I’ve watched things go so terribly wrong, shrugged, looked at my chief and said, “that’s about right…”

As strange as it sounds, I do miss that

We’d do well to insist on more of that mindset in the world today.

I make it a point to ask in hiring interviews, what the worst thing a candidate ever screwed up at work was. And if there’s a flash of excitement or a twinkle in the eye as he or she leans in to give me a great story then follows it up with what they learned, I know I’ve got something. If they can’t come up with anything, then maybe not.

If Haidt and Lukianoff are right, there aren’t many products pushing anti-fragility as a core principle for people development these days. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure anywhere ever has or ever will to the extent that the junior officer experience in the military does.

If you’re hiring, maybe hire a JO with a little less domain experience than you otherwise would. Odds are, you won’t regret it.

If you’re not, than go try something hard. You’ll probably fail. Or let the rope out a bit on your kids…and they’ll probably fail too.

But the world moves forward by those who have ruined a thing or two in the past and lived to try again. And it needs to start moving again.

10 replies »

  1. Sean, I like it when you dig deeper. You’re a philosopher,… who’s grounded. This one’s a dig worth riding down… right out the other side. Thank you.

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  2. My favorite quote from this piece “Stupid, motivated and dishonest is a roadside bomb. And the truth always comes out.” Too bad Trump will never read this article – or anything this long with no pictures or bullet points.

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  3. Well said!!! What JOs learn cannot be taught from a book or in a classroom. I teach that to my wardroom and my military and government civilian mentoree’s. Growth come from calculated risks to allow people to make their own mistakes. How you as the leader handle it determines how effective that growth is.

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  4. Excellent – nailed it! Always found it hard to explain people that moving to a new job meant being dropped in a vast field or wilderness, and success was finding your way out!

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  5. That was Truth and extraordinarily well written and accessible even for those who have never been the boot ensign. For everyone who has worn a butter bar and stood in front of 50 sailors, we can only smile and nod.

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