You Can Do Better
In many ways I resented the Army. I often felt that by joining I had lessened my value in the world; that maybe I was above being an enlisted man in a peacetime Army. In high school I saw myself going to college and then into business, but my grades, poor attitude, and my family's tradition of joining the military all led to me joining; so I trudged through. Three months before I was to be discharged, I was ordered to meet with the company Commanding Officer (CO) Captain Roth.
When most of us think of soldiers, we think of big, strong, rowdy, bad-asses – and many are. But an equal number of soldiers are cerebral, thoughtful and quietly powerful. Captain Roth was the second type. He was a quiet man, not that big physically but still an Airborne Ranger, Vietnam Vet, UH-1H Pilot…the whole package. While he was always a bit distant, he had a way about him that was compelling and admirable…the quiet leader. At the time – and to this day – I struggled with absolute authority, which is a problem in the Army, but I secretly admired Roth despite this.
When most of us think of soldiers, we think of big, strong, rowdy, bad-asses – and many are. But an equal number of soldiers are cerebral, thoughtful and quietly powerful. Captain Roth was the second type. He was a quiet man, not that big physically, but still an Airborne Ranger, Vietnam Vet, UH-1H Pilot...the whole package. While he was always a bit distant, he had a way about him that was compelling and admirable...the quiet leader. At the time - and to this day - I struggled with absolute authority, which is a problem in the Army, but I secretly admired Roth despite this.
When I was called into Roth's office he had me stand "at rest" for quite some time while he shuffled papers. Finally he looked up at me and asked quietly, "Catlin, what is your problem?"
I was confused, "My problem sir?"
He raised his voice slightly, "You heard me son, I didn't stutter...as far as I can tell you have not given the 10th CAV an honest day's work since you have been here, so again, what is your problem?"
I thought for a moment, and then pissed as hell answered, "I'm short, sir," while holding my hand out with thumb and pointer finger an inch apart. Being "short" meant that I was due to get out soon and consequently I was saying in Army slang, "F-U, I am outta here and there isn't much you can do about it at this point."
He looked at me for a long time before saying, "Son, I have been watching you for some time. You have friends who care about you. You score off the charts in your aptitude tests. I read your jacket and the Army offered you 3 different schools which would have made you an officer. Instead, you slide through, you do the least amount possible and have not grown as a soldier, at all, in two years." He paused.
Then he said: "You can do better."
He looked me straight in the eye for several long seconds before saying, "Now get out of here."
As I turned away, my ears started to burn. Even as I write this, 35+ years later, or if I'm telling this story in front of a training class, during a coaching session, or sitting in my living room, my ears burn. CO Roth had called me out.
He gave me feedback that stung, and I knew it to be true. Yet this feedback would turn out to be the greatest gift that I have ever been given, in life and in business.
I didn't change my ways immediately; that's too simple for me. I need a lot more brick walls to bang my face against before stuff sinks in. But, because of CO Roth's feedback, I never delivered a half-day's work to an employer again.
CO Roth knew I was "short," and he did not have to take his time to deal with a smart-ass 20 year old kid heading down the wrong path. So why did he do it?
He cared. He was a pro. He accepted that as a leader (manager) it was his duty to his soldiers (employees) to give them the hard truth. He loved his people enough to not allow them to simply fail because they didn't know where they stood.
And what if he hadn't? I get spooked thinking about that possibility.
What happens to your team if you are unwilling to display the courage first, and compassion second of a Captain Roth (and all the best managers), and give that pivotal feedback?
I understand that in business today we can't be as direct as CO Roth but is that a reasonable excuse for letting people falter because we are unwilling to lead?
Who needs you to be a Captain Roth? Who needs you to hold the bar for them until they do it themselves? Who needs honest and unambiguous feedback relating to their performance or behaviors? Whether you are in a position of leadership to 1 or 10,000 anything less is abdicating the prime responsibility of your position.
Whether we accept it as a calling, accept it as why we get paid, just accept it.
I owe you one Captain Roth. Thank you.