When the outspoken go quiet…

If you’ve read my article, “Why I Read and Why I Write,” then you know that I am a talk-think-talker. And I am fortunate that in my career the majority of my bosses have recognized that in me, and have allowed me the space to talk, to rant, to question, to challenge. They realized it is my nature to speak what is on my mind, and that they ultimately get more out of me by providing that space. Following orders is a tenet of good discipline in the military to be sure, and there isn’t always a time to question. But, outside of combat, in a cubicle or office, there is time. I wouldn’t want my subordinates following direction purely because military law dictates they shall. I want them to subscribe to the vision willingly because they understand the rationale. I want them to ask questions if it helps them get on board. I believe that is what leadership is about.

I cannot even remember what the topic was several years back, but I must have gone quiet. My face was saying a lot, but I wasn’t saying anything. I wasn’t engaging. My boss, who ultimately became my mentor and a friend, said something like, “Jen, I know you have something to say, I can see it on your face,” but I declined and answered with a “No Sir.” We carried on, and at a later point I was hauled into the office for a chat. He pried out of me what I wasn’t saying, and got an unfiltered rant out of me. Somewhere in that discussion he said something along the lines of “When you stop chiming in or engaging, I know there is a problem.” It’s true. And I feel myself starting to want to go quiet again. I hate that feeling. It feels like I’m failing, and it causes me to question myself, my leadership, my communication style, why I serve, everything.

On one hand, I feel like I fit in so well with the institution I serve, and for the most part, I always have. Yet every so often I feel like I am one of those things that isn’t like the other. That I don’t conform. Recognizing when and how to speak up, and when to shut up, is a skill I envy and lack. In writing, or in preparing for a speech, I can gather my thoughts and present myself relatively eloquently and formally. But off the cuff or routine or daily interactions, those typically come from my heart, and are genuine and leads to a very “ranty” or empassioned or frank or informal way of articulating something, which can run the risk of diluting the message or causing people to tune out. I’ve always believed it is one of the things that was destined to limit my career, and I’m not simply referring to career progression, it’s deeper than that, it’s tied to why I serve I think.

I am a participant in a working group right now, and I don’t really know or have a history with any of the other participants. Without I doubt I am one of the most vocal, chiming in with my thoughts and opinions, which I think for the most part have been well received, and some share similar opinions. But two of the others in particular, I am in awe when they speak. I feel like what comes out of my mouth is a volcanic eruption, and the second fellow usually manages to package up the lava I have just spewed with a little more structure, and then there is a third fellow who comes across as this calm, sage well spoken fellow who wraps it all up so eloquently at the end. I have no idea what he does for a civilian career, don’t even really know his military background other than his rank and current appointment, yet I listen to him chime in and I think: he’s smart, he’s so well spoken, I wonder what it would be like to work for him or with him. And while I know “we” need people like me, people who can put things on the table that others will dance around, I wish I had the ability to let others do that, and occasionally be the one that can spin it in a more eloquent way.

So why has this self doubt and questioning raised it’s head with me again? I think it’s because I feel the “fight” draining out of me, and I’m not sure I know how to “fight” in a smarter way. I only know the bullheaded direct path, and am either too stupid, stubborn, or impatient to try an alternate approach. Or maybe it’s that I am not optimistic either approach will be effective. Maybe it is that my years of experience have caught up with me and it has snuffed out my passion and belief that we can really change things. I feel somewhat like I am back at the point I was when I left the Regular Force. I talk about it in my article, “Leaving the Military Felt Like a Divorce.” In Adam Grant’s book Originals, he says, “To change the situation, exit and voice are the only viable alternatives.” I stayed in the Primary Reserve because I still feel like I had things to offer, that I could help young soldiers, and that maybe I could influence some of the things I have seen as problematic. But I feel like my voice is failing, or that I don’t have a voice. And I feel incapable of compartmentalizing and tuning out things I don’t like that I can’t change. I feel like some of those things are impacting those under my command as well, and so I can’t ignore it. I want to make it better for them, and ignoring what I perceive to be a problem feels wrong. Ultimately, it effects my ability to lead, and they deserve better than that. They deserve someone who’s frustrations with the system are not getting the better of them.

I have listened to the commanders and leaders at multiple levels above me in the last few weeks talk about how what the Primary Reserve needs is predictability. The need for that has existed for the span of my full career at least, and I’m sure longer than that. Likewise, we have failed to provide it for that same amount of time. In fact, I will make a pretty bold statement and go so far to say that the one thing we can pretty much guarantee is that a changing situation that will stomp all over predictability, all the time. Here are a few examples of things well beyond our control that yank the prospect of predictability right out from under us:

  • Natural disasters that interrupt our ability to train as we instead direct resources to domestic operations
  • Global pandemics
  • A change in government
  • Economic downfall or recession which impacts spending
  • Conflict erupting in a place that demands our attention immediately, or an act of war

Those are all legitimate reasons why a training calendar would change, why a deployment would change, why the amount of ammunition allocated would change. And that doesn’t take into account things such as a commander’s prerogative, a change in policy, new equipment being rolled out, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. We are chasing an unattainable goal of predictability as if that will be the panacea for the Primary Reservist.

That expression, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” seems to somewhat fit. Lack of predictability has always been our nemesis. We keep saying we need it, but we’ve never been able to provide it. So perhaps we need to stop chasing predictability, and figure out a different way to operate in an unpredictable environment. Maybe we need to tailor the expectations to reality, instead of trying to create a different reality to match expectations.