I had a pleasant conversation recently with a business leader about my time in the Navy and my career since then. It started off innocently enough. We’d gone out to eat together along with our wives and then decided to continue the evening at their home. We settled in and grabbed a drink. Our wives went into the sunroom and continued their conversation, leaving us to have ours.
At the time, I had no idea I would stumble across a profundity worthy of some additional introspection. It wasn’t until I started to kick around current events that the connections came together and the proverbial light bulb exploded.
First, let me bring you up-to-speed by summarizing the discussion.
When I initially joined the Navy, it was a combination of a sense of patriotism, family tradition and financial necessity. My father had been in the Army his entire adult life, mostly as a reservist. It had always provided additional income and became a failsafe when his career evaporated in Detroit back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
My military involvement began during Operation: Desert Shield in the fall of 1990. As that situation escalated over the course of several months, it was changed to Operation: Desert Storm. I had just completed my first semester in college and was floundering for money to continue. I spoke with a recruiter and they went over the Reserve G.I. Bill program, which would help offset the cost of getting my degree. I’d have to commit to two years of active duty service and six years as a reservist.
So, I went and spent the summer of 1991 in boot camp in Orlando, Florida and went immediately to my Class “A” school in my specialty — Cryptology. I was, as the joke goes, becoming a member of military intelligence. I graduated with a perfect 4.0 and was assigned to a unit in Atlanta.
Shortly afterwards, I began to have doubts about staying in the military. My sub-specialty was as a computer operator. With each passing month, I kept wondering why I was trained to handle so many manual and redundant tasks when a computer program could do it faster and more efficiently. I mentioned this to my supervisor, then my Chief and eventually to my C.O. They all agreed, but they all said we had to stick to procedures. Each explained that the “higher ups” wanted it done a certain way and it wasn’t their job to change things. Their job was to ensure everyone below them knew their place — knew what was expected of them — and could perform without thinking.
Now, in combat, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that model. Questioning authority or trying to do something unproven with life or death on the line is illogical and foolhardy. Each member of a team, squad, platoon, division, etc. has to know how to work as one oiled machine.
However, the concept of performing “without thinking” didn’t seem to make sense when it came to leveraging innovation and technology. I wasn’t questioning the need for information or why it needed to be kept secure, I was asking why we couldn’t make it better and faster? That’s when I realized, I wasn’t right for a career in the military. A few years later, I was offered the option of an early out with an Honorable Discharge. I took it.
Fast-forward to my civilian career, where my rise in responsibility had less to do with my years and more to do with my creativity. Innovative ideas and finding better methods to achieve ends was rewarded when I worked for IBM. I was lucky enough to have been hired by a company with such a corporate culture, thanks to then, CEO, Louis V. Gerstner. Two of his maxims that he brought to IBM have stuck with me this very day:
- Don’t get being busy mixed up with being productive; and,
- Work smarter, not harder.
I loved that ideology. I still follow those principles today in all I do or attempt. Louis Gerstner took a culture of “doing what we have always done, because we have always been doing it that way,” and said, “No more!” He wanted everyone, not just senior management, to be innovative again. He wanted to remove the shackles of stagnation. He implemented open door policies that went straight to his office. And, in his tenure, he took a multi-billion dollar corporation that was on the brink of being broken apart and sold off in pieces, to one of the greatest IT powerhouses in the world. He transformed the culture in IBM through his leadership. In just a few years, the management team began to reflect this new methodology and it trickled all the way down to the lowest rung of the corporate ladder.
Now, let’s catch up to my friend and I sitting in his kitchen, slowly nursing our drinks while ruminating over our employment histories. It was at this point I made a general comment that I could never imagine myself as a “yes man.” I remonstrated over my frustration at how some businesses are filled with employees who only know how to tow-the-line without thinking. I bemoaned the concept of self-preservation being more important to today’s future business leaders than risk-taking.
It was at this point that my friend looked me in the eye and said, “Let me explain something. People know where they get their paychecks. They know that someone else is paying their bills. And, if they wanted to keep their place, they had to learn how to stay in line. They know what is expected of them.”
I thought that over for a moment. I could see logic in that statement, but it felt too simplistic. I responded that I wasn’t extolling the notion of rebellion or being disagreeable for the sake of creating an impediment. I offered that there is a difference, to me, between bringing new ideas forward that could benefit the entire organization versus pretending to know what the CEO wants without even talking to him (or her).
The response: I know what my boss likes and doesn’t like; what he expects and what he doesn’t want to see. It’s my job to make sure it stays that way. He trusts me to do that for him and I will.
And, with that, we both agreed that there were merits to both views and moved onto discussions of sports, firearms and a host of other topics. But, in the back of my mind, I could sense something more profound at the periphery of my mind’s eye. Something that related to our government. But, it stayed just below the surface, out of my view.
Our Federal government is in the midst of several scandals. With each passing day and week, items from Benghazi, the IRS, and wire taps of the AP by the Justice Department continue to reveal a focused effort to wage a silent war against any groups or citizens who strongly oppose the policies of the current administration. And, at each step, many of the mainstream media, senior White House officials and leadership within the Democrat party continue to insulate the President from these findings. Even the President himself feigns knowledge over the actions of those under the purview of the Executive Branch and many believe him. After all, there are no direct memos or emails. No one has gone on record saying the orders were coming from the Commander in Chief. And, if I were to bet the family fortune (what little there is), I would suspect there never will be.
This is where the leftists in the country begin to laugh and extoll how amazing and worthy our leader is for weathering a storm that has nothing to do with him. This is when they mock those seeking answers, saying they are only out to create political harm for their party’s own expedience.
And that’s when it hit me. The President doesn’t have to order anyone to do anything.
Louis Gerstner never sent me an email saying, “I need you to figure out a better way to reconcile the invoicing process we have with all of the vendors we use for contractor labor.” When I took stock over how the team reconciled billing, I realized the flaws and knew there was a way to leverage technology to make the process faster and more accurate. I made a pitch to my management team and they gave me the freedom to work with a development team. Within six months, we launched an application and, by the end of the year, we recovered $1.05 million dollars in revenue that had been lost in the cracks. By the end of year two, we had recovered $2.1 million dollars in errant billing.
The culture in IBM had changed to allow freedom of thought, which empowered me to find solutions. I wasn’t a yes-man. I was an individual. My managers had been empowered to listen to ideas from everyone…not just those who thought similarly. They were not yes-men, either. The CEO had removed the concept of micromanaging human resources. IBM no longer suffered from groupthink. The cultural tone of freedom of thought and expression, though carried out throughout the organization, was set by the CEO. It was the expectation he set for everyone below.
Why would it be any different for any chief executive in any organization? How difficult is it, then, to believe that President Obama never had to put specifics in writing, if the culture in the Executive branch had been established to empower those around him to act as they believe they are supposed to act? When the President (any President) is able to place leaders around him who have the same core beliefs as he subscribes to, and are not allowed to deviate, can it not be said he has surrounded himself with the ultimate team of yes-men? They all know what is expected of them. They know what he wants to hear and what he does not want to see. They know where they get their paychecks and they know that if they want to stay where they are, they have to tow-the-line. It all revolves around the expectations of the CEO and, therefore, so does the accountability.
President Harry S. Truman understood this concept so well that he placed the now famous quote right on the his desk: “The buck stops here.” Ultimately, when you have surrounded yourself with automatons shaped in your own political image, you have to accept the responsibility of the actions of those around you. That is leadership. That is what we have always expected from every CEO.
When the BP oil platform exploded, did Congress bring the manager of the local BP into their hallowed halls? No! They brought in the CEO — a man who likely never once stepped foot on that rig. But, that isn’t the point. He is the head of the company and thus answerable for the actions of that company.
It’s time Americans understood that the same applies to the very governance enacted by the Founding Fathers in our Constitution. Our President is the CEO of our country. Take the labels off of the players and stick to the facts. An administration using the IRS to go after an opposing group, should be intolerable, regardless of party. An administration illegally tapping the phonelines and emails of members of the press does not suddenly become legal by choosing one party over another. Conspiring to mislead the American people over the facts and timeline of an attack on a U.S. embassy is unacceptable regardless of (R), (D), (I) or (L).
Ultimately, it’s time for us to realize that the issues of this administration are not the fault of one person. However, it is the fault of the mindset that has been allowed to settle into the Executive branch and the only way to change it is to change the culture. As long as the yes-men are allowed to remain where they are, and the current culture is protected and insulated by the press and the leadership, then we should not be surprised when a continued misuse of power is demonstrated over and over and over again.
It’s what we have come to expect.