10970 Karmin McKay: Reflections on the Importance of Respecting the Rank

Editor’s Note: This article is in response to the recent eVeritas article about the Alouettes practice time at CMR and Mike Kennedy’s response (below). It is the first of a series of articles that will follow in coming editions. 

Article by 10970 Karmin McKay 

After his career in football ended, Pete Dalla Riva went to work for Molson Breweries in Montreal in a public relations capacity. I remember meeting him just over 30 years ago, in late 1990, at the annual reception Molson’s used to host for cadets and Ex-Cadets in the region. He talked about the team’s experience training at CMR at the time he had been with the Alouettes. I also remember him saying that how important it was for the players and the coach to respect each other, in order to have a successful team. That comment has always stayed with me, and it reminds me of the importance that mutual respect and confidence play in having a successful team in any environment.

This subject is near and dear to my heart. I really only understood it after I started receiving my old age pension. How putting into practice this knowledge could have helped me avoid political minefields while I served. I always started out respecting another soldier’s rank from Trooper to General. My mistake was not respecting the rank (especially for those I reported to) when I lost my respect for that person.  This behaviour started at RMC in third and fourth year (my squadron commander) and was reinforced by the same feelings towards him with my partner in crime who lived 2 doors away in Fort Champlain. The squadron commander returned the compliments but not until my final assessment as I graduated. My assessment that year was the worst one I have ever seen in more than 20 years afterwards and it was about me. I never expected to see him again. Good riddance I thought as I marched off the square on 1 June 1976.

In my fourth phase of training, I did the exact opposite and received one of the best assessments of the 62 candidates that started the course (only 28 passed). I was asked if I wanted a posting to Germany and accepted. Long story short, I was occupying a defensive position with my tanks in Bavaria in mid September and got the drop on several enemy (German) vehicles. The umpire arrived to assess the results. To quote Gomer Pyle, ”Surprise, surprise, surprise”. It was my last squadron commander from RMC. It was priceless. We both recognized each other at the same time and stated “What the bleep are you doing here”? I was now a Lieutenant, and he was a Captain. No big difference. We later both served together in Army Headquarters and became friends. By then I respected him and his rank just as he respected me.

I had similar issues with my second Squadron Commander in Germany. More about him in another article. But so did all the other Regimental officers because he was the classic example of the Peter Principal and certainly had been promoted beyond his ability to function.

It should be no surprise that this trend continued.  My final story is about an officer that I first met as a LCol, later as a BGen and the last time as a civilian when he asked to work as a consultant for me and my company. I was working in NDHQ as a high tech Project Director (UAVs, radar, thermal imagery night vision etc.). Not bad for an artsman.  I had worked hand in hand with the Major General in charge of the whole Department and the two previous to him. I was able to speak directly to both without going through the chain of command and did so often. He arrived to become the new Department second in command. He forbid me to talk to the MGen without briefing him and getting his permission first. I said “yes sir” stood to attention and left his office. I then proceeded to ignore his direct order. I knew (believed) that he was a moron and would never understand the technology nor benefits behind my verbal briefs and reasons for fast action (Gulf War 1 as an example). While many staff officers in large HQs act like a chicken in a cage (cubicle), I was more like a free range chicken. A great deal of my NDHQ time was spent in Europe, Latin America, courses and Army bases, just to get out of my cubicle in NDHQ. I believed in the importance of my work and just how much it could help our soldiers going into war zones. Damn the red tape and useless time delays, full speed ahead.

A few days  later, my LCol told me that the BGen wanted to see me NOW and what did I do to make him so mad? I stated I do not know. The BGen had me stand to attention and stated “Did I not tell you not to talk to the MGen unless I said you could?” I stated “Yes sir”. “Why did you speak with him then?” he ranted and it was a rant. My answer was ”Sir, MGen A walked onto the same elevator I was on and he asked me a question. I had to answer him so gave him a concise accurate answer to that question and the others he asked me. He asked me if I was going to the mess for lunch, and that he wanted to have lunch with me.  I said yes and the conversations continued over lunch Sir”. He huffed and puffed and ordered me not to do speak with the MGen again.

Now for the rest of the facts:

  1. I had worked hand in hand with the MGen when he was the Operations BGen in Army HQ and I was his SO3 operations officer (Capt). I spoke directly to him skipping the chain of command almost daily and on occasion directly to the LGen (Commander of the Army). I had also worked directly for the LGen before when he commanded 4 CMBG in Germany and I was his Liaison Officer. When challenged by my chain of command, my answer was one of two most often ”The General told me to do” it or “you do not have the need to know said the General”. Both of the Generals knew me and trusted my judgement.
  2. I knew the MGen I wanted to speak to went to the Army Mess for lunch when he could.
  3. That I had been standing beside the elevator doors waiting for him to go to the Mess for 20 minutes and only pressed the down button when he arrived.

I retired from the military and entered the world of weapon simulators. The BGen was retiring, saw me in the Mess and asked if he could become my company’s  Canadian consultant. I now regret my answer of “you are not good enough”. That was rude and not called for.  He later became a Federal Cabinet Minister.

Lessons to consider

  1. Respect the rank, even if you do not respect the person.
  2. Consider the risk before you disobey a direct order even if you are doing it for the right reasons.
  3. I got away with disobeying direct orders many times because of the manner and reasons for which I did it including not getting caught (more on this topic later).
  4. One may win the skirmish regarding the disobedience but lose the battle months or weeks later during assessment time.
  5. Officers’ superior to me normally wrote two types of assessments about me. I was a water walker or worth keeping in the military but barely average. I worked for several officers that I respected in a row in demanding jobs and got promoted to Major from Captain. Had I reported to another that I did not respect, forget promotion and the great jobs that I had afterwards.
  6. I had one glitch and that was at Army Staff College. One LCol and I did not get along and he really worked to lower my assessment. It is a good thing that the Army Staff College BGen had been my skiing partner for the year we were on French Course.
  7. Junior officers (Capt and Lt) have the ability to end your career as an OCdt. I was lucky my last RMC squad boss did not fail me and prevent my graduation.
  8. The same OCdt that you treated badly may soon one day be your peer and or superior. If you are that Capt, you could be working one day for one of your OCdt trainees. I remember everyone of my course officers. Some were good, others were not so good. As a peer, I treated them that way.  An RMC bud reminded me that he did this exact thing to another officer. A Captain that had treated him badly just because he could when my bud was an OCdt had the favour returned when the Capt. made a mistake on a career course and the now Lt. did not correct him when he could have.
  9. If you have not broken the code yet, many of the officers that you work with and for at RMC, and during your first operational posting after you graduate will continue to help and mentor you or haunt you for the rest of your career and perhaps afterwards. (more on this topic later).
  10. You will work with ex-cadets that remember you from RMC. I worked with my rook flight CSC when he commanded 1 Signals Regt and then with the next 1 Signal Regt CO. He had been assigned to monitor and guide me when I was in first year and he was in second year. (More on this later).
  11. You must respect their rank.
  12. Keep in contact with potential mentors and try to avoid those that will cause trouble for you. More on these topics later.

5 Comments

  • Paul Crober

    May 4, 2021 at 10:05 am

    Some great points Karmin!
    Bottom line: “We have a very small Army!”
    That applies to the RCAF and RCN as well.
    It also applies to the current scandals — in that, because we are so small, everything we say and do will eventually become “known” to someone, somewhere in our CAF.

  • 10966 Michel Maisonneuve

    May 4, 2021 at 10:34 pm

    Great story Karmin. We were together at NDHQ when you were THE guru of NVGs. Outstanding work to bring a project to fruition. And I well remember the one-star you refer to… He actually became a pretty good Minister of the Crown in my opinion!

  • Mike Kennedy

    May 5, 2021 at 12:09 pm

    It sounds to me that Karmin may have been a candidate in the same 1976 Phase IV Armour course as future CDS Rick Hillier, who describes the course in some detail in his autobiography “A Soldier First”. Judging by Hillier’s account, the course was not an inspiring experience for the participants. In Hillier’s own words, he describes the course as being a “slaughterhouse” and notes with obvious regret that “some pretty good people went out the door that summer”. He sums up his assessment of the experience by writing that “It says something about the state of the leadership of the military and the incredibly poor training processes at the time that we lost so many good young men. It was appalling.”
    The consequences of situations like the one Hillier describes are invariably negative for everyone involved, ultimately the biggest loser of all are the Canadian Forces themselves. I don’t know what the situation is today, but I do hope the CF’s training establishments have adopted a more “enlightened” approach to what they do. In this day and age, it is hard enough to get good people in the door in the first place, and no successful organization can afford to casually throw away talent.
    My rook Flight CSC, by the way, was in the Armoured Corps. He was one of the leaders I eventually came to respect at RMC.

  • 7454 Richard Young

    May 5, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    Respect for the Rank or Position, is key to the proper functioning of any organization whether civilian or military. One hopes that the person at the rank or in the position one is subordinate to is also worthy of respect. But that isn’t always easy. Human nature is what it is and there can always be “oil & water” situations. But how one comports themselves when in such a situation is a test of one’s own character. Willfully breaking the chain of command is always a risky proposition. Often, even when you think you are right, doing an end run is wrong and the mission could suffer. “Knowing you are right” can be a dangerous conviction. Depending on your particular position in an organization, you are seldom privy to all the facts and considerations bearing on given situation. Not following orders felt to be illegal is another thing entirely but not what we are talking about here.

    Deliberately grooming “mentors” to enable or protect one from the repercussions of risky or rogue behavior can be a minefield waiting to happen. It can backfire, or worse, when it is a bottom up process. But top down can be problematic as well. While sorting “thoroughbreds from plow horses” is a known phenomena in the Performance Evaluation scheme, it can be faulty and too easily swayed by personality vs. actual accomplishments.

    The Airforce at a certain point in my experience criticized itself for not identifying “streamers” and taking care to “bring them along” by carefully selected postings and command opportunities to assure their advancement, with the eventual top job being the prize. Actual studies are obviously difficult but I suspect we would find that a goodly number of folk were promoted beyond their competence using this strategy.

    Interesting rabbit holes galore when looking at organizational structures, hierarchies, merit based advancement, managing the pyramidal structure of large and complex organizations as they apply to leadership and, just as importantly, follower-ship.

  • Mike Kennedy

    May 6, 2021 at 1:07 pm

    Upon reflection, it seems to me that another important part of this story relates to the issue of how it is entirely possible for two different people to form completely different opinions of the exact same individual. Depending on the circumstances at the time, that can potentially save someone’s career, or just as easily destroy it.
    I am reminded of the story of young man who attended the U.S. Naval Academy several decades back. During his years at the Academy, this midshipman spent several years under the thumb of a company commander who made no secret of his dislike for the young man, and who routinely ranked him a the bottom of the company in terms of aptitude for the service. On more than one occasion, the young man in question narrowly avoided expulsion. He finally did graduate, but just barely.
    One summer, the midshipman was assigned to training on an ageing destroyer commanded by an officer with who he established a good relationship. When the summer was over, he returned to the Naval Academy with a glowing assessment of his future potential. His company commander at the Academy could not believe it, he actually thought it was a case of mistaken identity.
    That young man’s name was John McCain. As I have written in a previous edition of e-Veritas, when McCain graduated in 1958 he stood fifth from the bottom of his class, and I’m sure that at the time no one expected him to rise to future greatness. We now know how the rest of his life turned out, and what he accomplished in his life after the Academy.
    One has to wonder how McCain’s life would have been different, and indeed, how the course of history might have been different, if his company officer at the Academy had managed to have him dismissed. Thankfully, it didn’t happen. You can find the full story in McCain’s autobiography Faith of My Fathers.
    I think there may be an important message in these kinds of stories, and I would encourage leaders at the College and in the Forces to think about that.

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