Honesty was valued over telling people what they wanted to hear. Doing the job right was valued over kissing ass.

Way back when I had a “sham shield” 1 and was stationed at Fort Eustis, my Sergeant Major had junior enlisted give a “book report” each month in front of the entire company. I dreaded this. Most of the books you could choose were dry2 military histories or biographies of famous generals. Totally not what I wanted to read.

I got lucky.3

When my turn came, one of the book choices was Prodigal Soldiers. That title caught my interest, and the subtitle – “How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War” – seemed equally interesting.

I was wrong. It wasn’t interesting. It was fascinating.

I’d been inundated with the 80’s flood of Vietnam wish-fulfillment movies and TV shows. I’d seen the completely different style of Gulf War One. I had no idea what had happened inbetween.

It’s a fascinating read of how a huge organization transformed itself over the course of twenty years. It also tells you exactly what the secret ingredients were in that change.

Honesty was valued over telling people what they wanted to hear. Doing the job right was valued over getting praise for yourself.4

Sure, there were consequences. If your unit wasn’t up to snuff, there better be a reason why – and a plan to make it happen. But it would be far, far worse to claim your unit was ready when it wasn’t.

Despite being an outside observer by the time Gulf War Two came around, it’s apparent that sensibility of truth-telling was lost.5 And our military suffered for it. Units were put into roles they’d never trained for, with disasterous results. Soldiers were ill-equipped – something absolutely criminal given our defense expenditures. And we’ve spent longer fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did World War Two.

I think there’s an important lesson here that can be generalized to any organization – business, civic, political, religious, or military. When that organization loses sight of these two rules:

  • Value honesty over ass-kissing
  • Value performance over careerism

that, my friends, is when it is time to start looking for a new place to be.

1 SPC or E-4, in the Army, y’all.
2 To me, at least
3 Again. So much of my military “career” is based on me getting lucky that it’s not funny.
4 Yes, I realize that there’s some degree of self-promotion or careerism necessary, and that “truth telling” is not the same as being rude. Stick with me here.
5 Though I caught glimmers of it being eroded before I left myself.

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