Do you know the truth about yourself?
By Col. Robert Eatman, 60th Mission Support Group commander
/ Published April 13, 2011
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "The unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates
There is a risk associated with success and a great risk associated with great success.
As you rise in rank, it's easy to start believing you are smarter, better looking and less fallible, when a quick glance in a mirror would reveal the truth. Do you know the truth?
When my new first sergeant, an Army E-8, reported to duty to work for me when I was a combatant commander headquarters commandant, I told him one of his jobs was to be a "truth teller." As my senior ranking enlisted member with an office next door, I expected him to come in, close the door and tell me when I had it all wrong.
It didn't take long before, at a meeting, without asking for opinions from my staff, I made an unnecessarily hasty decision. After the meeting, my first sergeant followed me into my office and asked me, "Sir, what the heck are you thinking? That's not going to work out like you think it is, sir." He was right. I was wrong. And I was grateful he had the courage to close my door and speak his mind.
It takes an effort for leaders, and I'd argue more effort the more senior the leader, to build an environment where they can see a true reflection in their leadership mirror. I don't have all the answers, but I have some really great questions, to help develop an accurate reflection of yourself.
Are you steady, calm, predictable and approachable? Do you accept good and bad news with equal enthusiasm, humor and bearing? If your Airmen know they can bring you news, any news, and they don't have to worry you'll fly off the handle, you're on the right track.
If you are genuinely grateful when an Airman tells you something you don't know, even if it is painful to hear, Airmen will tell you things you need to know.
Can you name at least one fearless, honest broker you can count on to tell you when you are wrong, no matter what? When is the last time he or she told you that you just might be wrong? Have you ever changed your mind after having been advised that it's not going to work out like you think it is?
Do you reward those with the courage to speak their mind and tell you what you need to hear, especially when it is not what you want to hear?
Two quick stories come to mind. After a crowded exercise hot-wash, when a colonel asked how we would do on an upcoming deployment exercise, a young lieutenant replied she thought we would do well if we got on with the planning process more quickly. She wasn't particularly diplomatic, but she was courageous and told us things we needed to hear and not what we wanted to hear.
Late one night, while I was visiting our civil engineers as they worked in the cold, pouring rain on a potentially dangerous power substation, I heard them talk about what they needed to do to restore power to hundreds of housing residents. They knew their leadership, me included, wanted power back on. One of them suggested with the current conditions, fatigued Airmen and other complications, we were better off finishing the work after a little rest, in the light of day and with no live wires nearby. It meant continued inconvenience, but it was the right advice. I coined both of those truth-tellers and I hope the message is clear -- truth is truth, good or bad, and I want it raw and unvarnished.
Great danger awaits officers and senior noncommissioned officers who rely only upon their own eyes to see. Be sure you surround yourself with those who will share with you what they see. Even the Roman generals on their triumphal parade had a servant who whispered "Memento mori" in their ear. Remember thou art mortal (fallible), all glory and fame is fleeting, and, perhaps, you're not as smart or as good looking as you think.