You have to pretend that you know everything, that you have all the answers; you have to appear “stoic;” in command and never show your fear, uncertainty, and doubts to those you lead. Have you ever heard similar sentiments, especially when you’ve been new to a leadership role? I certainly encountered that mentality from some peers and positional leaders while serving as a young Marine Infantry Officer during the run-up to the First Persian Gulf War. I quickly learned that seldom do such extremes work if one wants to be an effective leader.
It is true that being the leader often means being in a seemingly dichotomous position, in that you must find the right balance between two sides of the same coin which appear diametrically opposed. During my training in the Marines we called it being “on the horns of a dilemma.”
One such dichotomy centers around the issue of vulnerability, or the ability to put ourselves out there for others to see; not the masked, idealized version of ourselves, but our true selves. The one willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers; that we are initially unsure of the correct course of action, and the one unafraid to acknowledge our fears and ask for help.
Often leaders, especially those with less experience, are not willing to show any chinks in their armor for fear of appearing vulnerable and/or less competent to those they lead. Thoughts and fears of being mocked, chastised and/or demoted or relieved of command for showing one’s humanity can prevent us from connecting more effectively with those we have the privilege to lead.
Am I saying it is alright for the leader to always express their fears, doubts, and other vulnerabilities? Or, to show them to an exaggerated degree? No, I am not. It is a delicate balancing act to express such feelings at the proper time and place, and level, to connect with someone to indicate you empathize with what they’re experiencing, and that their response is legitimate.
This fact was driven home to me twice during the first evening of the air war during the First Persian Gulf War. Up until that point, we had been training for months in the northern part of Saudi Arabia preparing to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was two weeks after my 24th birthday and I had only been with my platoon for roughly two weeks in Hawaii prior to deploying to the Persian Gulf. Reporting into Kaneohe Bay to become a Rifle Platoon Commander a week after Saddam invaded Kuwait, never did I imagine I would be in this circumstance half-way around the world so soon after leaving officer training in Quantico.
That evening, we watched sortie after sortie of U.S. aircraft racing north to bomb Iraqi positions. Not long after, we raced into our bunkers after Iraqi rockets began to land. It took us some time to realize that the bombs were landing several kilometers from our positions and posed no real danger to us at the time. I sat in a bunker with my Marines, one of whom was a young lance corporal who was crying. He told me he was scared. I told him I was also scared, but we were well-trained and were ready to handle any upcoming missions.
Our Company Commander then directed my platoon to deploy to a pier near the Saudi/Kuwait border. We would be leaving the relative safety of the company/battalion area to protect a special forces contingent operating from that pier. We received intelligence that a contingent of Iraqi forces was moving south to attack the pier.
As we were loading onto the trucks to leave our perimeter, it came to my attention that another of my Marines, a Private First Class, was claiming to be a Conscientious Objector and did not want to leave the battalion area. Under the chaos of these unfolding events, taking place in complete darkness, I went over to this young Marine who was previously viewed as one of the toughest in the platoon. I sat next to him in the dark and listened to him as he cried and told me that he wanted to be designated as a Conscientious Objector and to be sent home. “I can’t do this Sir,” are words forever burned into my memory.
Of all the exemplary tactical and leadership training I received in Quantico for the past year or so before the war, I was not prepared for this circumstance. I had no frame of reference or example to fall back on to guide me. I simply relied on my humanity, and told him I understood his fear as it was totally normal to feel frightened in the moment, as did I. However, we had a job to do, and I and his fellow Marines needed him to do his part now, as they were expecting me to do my job. He nodded his head and reluctantly boarded that truck shortly thereafter.
Upon reflection, not once did I feel like me admitting to my men that I too was scared in the moment that my leadership would be diminished in their eyes. I hoped seeing me go about my duties gave them the feeling that yes, the lieutenant is human; he isn’t pretending to not be scared when he is; he is not a robot who will recklessly throw our lives away. By admitting my own fears/vulnerabilities in a measured way, I believe that my Marines saw that if their leader was able to carry on under such circumstances, they too would be able to weather the storm. The power of example would not be diminished by acknowledging the reality of the situation.
I also did not look at the two Marines referenced here as anything other than human beings, expressing normal emotions in very trying circumstances. Just as a father would not look down on his son for expressing uncertainty in fearful times, neither did I to my men. They were both good Marines and continued to be so; they simply needed some reassurance during a period of incredible stress. I am glad that they felt comfortable enough to express their true feelings and vulnerabilities to me.
Peel back the belief that you, as the leader, always need to appear impervious to difficulties, and doubts. When you express the appropriate level of vulnerability at the appropriate time, you will appear stronger, not weaker, to those entrusted to your care.
- Dan Mehdi, Eagle 6 Training