CTR2 Willoughby is a 23-year-old first-term Sailor with a driving passion for learning and understanding; a rational, positive outlook on life; a distaste for the superflous; and, if not uncensored, a tongue which expresses his distaste. Since enlisting in 2009 he has been the honor graduate of CTR “A” School, honor graduate 9138 Analysis and Reporting, awarded a letter of congressional recognition, Junior Sailor Of the Quarter 3QFY12 and 1QFY13. He is a full-time, honor’s list student currently enrolled in the final classes for his associates degree and identifying the next institution to further his education. His pre-Navy employment was consisted primarily of work in a cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon’s office and a chiropractor’s office, but also included automotive paint and body work, retail, car sales, ISP customer service, and more.

First, it is an honor to be the first enlisted guest-blogger, it’s an honor to have a post at all, as Commander Heritage is someone whom I hold in very high regard – not because of his collar device or position, though commendable, they do not hold much weight with myself aside from what is required. Instead it is the organization that he, and leaders like him create resulting in the inspiration of those surrounding them. Notice how I said surrounding them, and not under their command. Though the Navy demands that we all pay respect to, and obey the orders of those above us – it says much more when we do the same because of who they are, and what they’ve enabled to be mutually accomplished together.

These leaders will always be on the barrel-end of their conservative, traditional counterparts because they (metaphorically) cut their trees down and teach their fellows to walk upright alongside them. What is this tree and monkey business? This is from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” (probably pre-dates the book but that’s where I saw it) – a tree of monkeys is something found in most traditional top-down leadership schemes. Everyone at the top looking down sees nothing but smiles. Everyone at the bottom looking up, sees nothing but asses.

I’m here to tell you that what many people believe is ‘effective leadership’ is nothing more than check-in-the-box, error-avoiding micromanagement. This type of management will never produce an environment that is enjoyable, creative, innovative, or efficient. Monkey tree leadership is perfect for assembly lines, possibly even some retail, but I wouldn’t even go that far. The job may get done but nearly everything else will be nil.

Recently I was watching a TED talk on teaching science and the presenter makes a great point which I summarize as this: We get so wrapped up in the technical details and concern ourselves with being 100% accurate that we lose sight of what’s truly important and fail to properly inspire the significance that resides within each member of the team.  This is a problem in both our educational system and our workplaces. Leaders who become consumed with looking good and doing things ‘the prescribed way’ will always miss out on BETTER ways. It will, as it always has been – be the dissidents in our society who cause us to progress.

“Oh you know, things under this king of ours – could be worse, we may fail if we try to be independent – let’s just accept the way things are.” The revolution in education and our workplaces will begin with those who are not afraid to take personal risks, to challenge the status quo, and to question the things we are taught to be correct. The revolution towards progress in any field will begin with the dissidents who care enough to stand up and say “this doesn’t make any f*cking sense”.  The fact that we’re more shocked by vulgar language than by the complacency expressed by the masses is a testament to the fact that we need change.

I’m afraid that too many have been silenced too often – too often told ‘that’s just the way it is, you have to deal with it’ – like water slowly poured on a persistent flame – too many of us have been extinguished from caring. I know that with regard to many things – I have.

The fact of the matter is that being in the Navy is easy – show up at the right time, in the right uniform, do what we’re told, and don’t get in trouble – follow those steps and we’ll have a fairly successful career. But we don’t want easy. We want to be challenged, we want meaningful work, we want responsibility, we want the camaraderie that comes with solving challenging problems together. We will take long hours and a fast-paced environment instead of liberty and stagnation. We don’t require much. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many great leaders, to have inspiring leaders at every level, to be surrounded by absolutely brilliant people who, though constantly under-utilized and abused by the system, have stuck around. It’s an amazing thing.

When we’re micromanaged, when we’re told every detail of performing every task we do, when we’re presented with worthless qualifications that don’t enhance our ability to contribute, when every bit of decision making and control is taken away from us, when we’re asked to demonstrate personal initiative but told to adhere to a strict monitoring system and timeline – that’s when you keep the people who want easy and push the people who want knowledge and a challenge right out the door.

We’re all human. Strip off your collar devices, strip off your income, strip off your positions – realize that everyone around you is also human, no more, no less. Before you make your next decision – no – before you even speak to anyone else, think about their perspective and about how you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. If you have many people under you, what may seem like a quick status-check to you, often turns into a frantic organization of meetings, pre-meeting meetings, and briefs being prepared for something which didn’t really matter, nor was the intention in the first place.  Busy work that leaves people on the bottom of the monkey tree expressing sentiments like “I’m working as hard as a dead dog decaying on the side of the street” to “I had to stop taking [college] classes because we were assigned so many qualifications” [which didn’t help at all, or achieve anything – context of that conversation.]  These are the environments that we’re creating when we take responsibility and control away from our people.

It’s amazing how something written in the late 1920’s is still relevant today, in our workplaces and schools, though this was written exclusively about schools, it’s amazingly prevalent in workplaces too:

“The administrators never see the children whose lives they control, and being of an administrative type (since otherwise they would not have obtained the posts they occupy), they are probably particularly apt to regard human beings, not as ends in themselves, but as material for some kind of construction. Moreover, the administrator invariably likes uniformity. It is convenient for statistics and pigeonholing… {children resulting} will therefore all tend to be alike, while the few who cannot conform to the recognized pattern will suffer persecution, not only from their follows but from the authorities. This means that many of those who have the greatest potentialities will be harried and tortured until their spirit is broken.” – Bertrand Russell (Marriage and Morals)

My intent with this thought piece is merely to provide insight into what many overlook and others consider taboo, in hopes of giving more of us reason to address the very problem being experienced by the monkeys across many institutions, not just our military.  Please know my views are not particularly directed at my organization, these are observations and feelings resulting from numerous readings, personal experiences, and conversations with others. I recommend the below resources to those of us truly interested flattening trees as a form of leadership.

TEDs Talks:

Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

David Logan: Tribal Leadership

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

Books:

Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action