Leaders Who Do The Unnecessary

Above: U.S. Army General Staff Insignia

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

I suspect that every reader has experienced aspects of what the following discussion addresses, leaders who perform unnecessary or even counterproductive activity relative to demonstrating effective leadership. Often the leader engaged in such activity, in small or large ways, undercuts their effectiveness as a leader even when they possess significant competencies that may have been demonstrated.

Leaders who engage in unnecessary or counterproductive actions or behaviors may drain the reservoir of confidence in their abilities that their demonstrated competence has filled. This may occur to a point in some cases that the leader becomes compromised or ineffective or, worse, toxic.

To examine this counter productive behavior and illustrate its manifestation in organizations, a tactical operations general staff context is used. Again, many may identify as familiar the scenario employed.

Provided is a situation and examples of unnecessary or counterproductive leader behavior occurring in that situation. The examples provided perhaps at first glance do not seem overly significant in their effect when not examined as they are here.  But by taking a deeper look, the shared examples illustrate the leadership counter productivity point in several ways. The following vignette examines the counter productive behavior and effects by highlighting the undesirable leader behavior/activity and possible ramifications.

An Army combat division‘s night tactical operations center staff was presenting the morning end of shift briefing to assembled commanders, select staff officers  and unit representatives from across the division and to liaison personnel from other commands. The division was forward deployed on a major multi-week NATO maneuver exercise designed to place all of its systems into an operational mode sufficient to evaluate capabilities and areas needing improvement. The morning change of shift briefing presented to the assembled audience the situation that had developed over the preceding 12 hours relative to mission and the status of units and systems as reported and clarified by the division’s tactical operation’s center (TOC) night shift.

Presenters were typically majors and captains from the different division staff section that manned the night shifts. If something significant had occurred the division chief-of-staff and staff lieutenant colonel staff section chiefs would be presenters/briefers. Typically they were present for the briefing even if not presenting.

Among the audience were the major general commanding, brigadier general assistant division commanders, colonels from the division’s brigade level commands and lieutenant colonel commanders from units such as the division’s aviation, cavalry, engineer, and signal battalions. Additional members of the audience were commanders from any units under the division’s operational control and commanders or liaison officers of adjacent or supporting corps commands.  Typically  the audience group briefed ranged from 45-60 but was sometimes less.

Most of the attendees, their units and commands being the source of major portions of the information reported, had primary interests in obtaining new or confirming known information and assuring the integrity of their reported information or updating it if more current information was available. Almost all at different staff levels had performed the briefing function at points in their careers and empathized with the briefer’s challenges to synthesize reported information into a cohesive presentation that productively used the time of the assembled group.

The professionals kept their questions or comments brief and only talked when necessary. They “worked with” the briefer to make the briefing a useful exercise in information exchange that contributed to effective mission execution.

But there were some who exhibited a different approach. There were the individuals who took it upon themselves to “test” the briefer by second guessing the presentation.  These types would, among other ploys, seek opportunities to find the briefer inaccurate on some point presenting their own “correct” information, the latter not infrequently proving less than correct or biased in some way not constructive to the audience’s needs.

Or there was the individual that felt it their duty to make the presentation into a test of the briefer’s confidence in front of a group. Sometimes these individuals were subtle.  Sometimes they were not so subtle. But the upshot of the contribution was to add unnecessary wasted time to the exercise.

Then there was the individual that had a pressing need to demonstrate their sharpness and command of the situation and all aspects of the operation. These attendees could add far too much time to the event, additional time that also wasn’t productive or useful.

Usually for such briefing sessions the Division commander, a designated assistant division commander or the chief-of-staff, depending on the program considered necessary, usually set the tone for the session with an intro. This opening typically disciplined the outlier types to deny their less than helpful impulses and stay on script. Especially emphasized, “If you don’t have anything to contribute that’s new or constructive keep your own counsel.”

Still, there was the person who could not control the impulse. For these, the briefer did need to develop deflection, redirection and humor skills that politely and as diplomatically as possible restored control and focus and maintained the momentum of the briefing. Such responses as “that’s a good question that the last report received did not address, let’s get together off-line and discuss it,”  usually maintained control of the briefing.

The negative behaviors displayed when engaged in such public forum of moment too frequently may have farther reaching effects on a leader’s viability. One of these effects is the drawing of a collective sense from superiors, colleagues and subordinates of the perpetrator being a counterproductive individual. A colleague  of less than stellar ability, someone whose ego feeds behavior that does nothing to enhance teamwork.

Another is a questioning of the maturity of the person indulging in the behavior.  There are other more professional, less public, means of correcting a perceived shortfall in say a briefer or providing additional information than creating a public display that may embarrass everyone present.

To the oblivious practitioner caught up in “insuring everyone present knows how smart they are,” the effect on the audience may be quite the opposite. Not least  of these effects may be the sense gained that someone in this mode lacks the ability to “know where they are”, “how to act,” and “we have here someone who can’t read the audience.”

Perhaps the worst result in terms of superior and collegial reaction to such behaviors, especially if they second guess or attempt to embarrass a briefer, is the typically automatic empathy of the group for the briefer and an assessment of the person engaging in the behavior as a poor example of a leader.

The leader who at such gatherings acts out in such manner will significantly compromise reputation in the immediate community of leaders they are a part of.  As well, the word spreads into the larger leader community. Even subordinates will get wind that their leader is compromised in this manner. Subtle and not so subtle reaction by the community may follow that compromises the perpetrating leader.

For example, the leader’s superior may begin to consider others for assignments. Some of these redirected assignments may be crucial to advancement of the perpetrating individual or placement of the organization this individual is assigned to lead  among like organizations in the command.

Another effect, that may be even more dramatic, the behavior may negatively affect the critical exchange of information producing operational consequences because of the failure to communicate all critical information due to the behavior. In combat situations that failure to communicate properly due to some of the referred to behaviors may produce dead and wounded soldiers.

A leader who engages in unnecessary grandstanding to show off their superior intelligence, determines to be a one person critique expert, or an unprogrammed extended extemporaneous speaker exhibits behaviors that at the least are boorish and at worst can be toxic and  kill. The golden rule of saying only what needs to be said and sticking to what is of importance to all comes to mind. The leader who engages in unnecessary behavior is very likely to become an “unnecessary” leader as well.