Walking a fine line
Q: The ex-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was replaced after talking trash about other officials. Can leaders ever be excused for such excesses? In a broader sense, is success possible for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and how would you define it? Or, as someone said early on in Vietnam, should we simply "declare victory and leave"?
Good leaders are loyal and trustworthy. They make commitments and keep them, maintain confidences and understand the importance of the chain of command. Good leaders are also forthright and assertive, making clear their ideas and opinions and maintaining accountability for them.
While both these statements are defendable, they are at times at odds, and the effective leader needs to either hold the tension between them or pay the price for adhering to one and not the other.
It was my first real job out of college, and I believed the ad campaign my boss and mentor had invested in was neither wise nor well timed, but he had heard my views and decided on the opposite course of action anyway, and now my job was clear -- drive forward and make his decision work.
When asked by my boss's superior what my opinion was, my choice was between showing loyalty to my commitment and position by defending my boss's decision or to speak my mind and with my honesty throw my mentor under the bus. Honesty and integrity came at the cost of also looking disloyal and untrustworthy, but loyalty and a faithful defense of the chain of command would bring with it the taint of lying.
Leaders know this tension well -- and no leaders know it more clearly than those in the military. When General McCrystal recently spoke his mind, he looked both honest and insubordinate -- which is arguably commendable, yet intolerable for a leader in his system.
McCrystal may have been innocently honest, politically calculating, brave, stupid or some odd combination of these, but what he reminds us of is the tension between assertiveness and impulse control -- independence and adherence to the chain of command, that all leaders must at some time choose between. Being a good leader does not mean avoiding this choice, but rather making it and standing by the consequences.
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