By Andrea Harrington
I was once told: “A great leader comes to work every day, ready to be fired for doing the right thing.” The Colonel who told me this was a mastermind of recognizing and undermining bias and barriers. I was amazed at his ability to tactfully communicate opposing views, identify and dismiss or work around others’ biases, and move a meeting in his intended direction despite direct opposition. He was not afraid to lead boldly and stand up for what was right. He is an example to our military culture on how to influence change within the confines of good order and discipline.
The day the Captain Crozier story broke, I thought immediately of this mentor and his advice to be prepared to be fired. Unsurprisingly, Captain Crozier was relieved of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt shortly thereafter for authoring a four page plea to the Navy on behalf of the personnel under his command. The letter was published outside of military channels on public media. Although the details of the situation are unknown to me, I’d like to believe he wrote that letter knowing it could be leaked and ready to take the consequences. Due to his actions, the sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt are getting the care they need, the secretary of the Navy has resigned, and Captain Crozier received a hero’s send-off. What an impactful event to witness in military history.
Why is it such a struggle for some service members to stand up for what is right? Milgrams’ Agency Theory shows that in general, people have a readiness to obey authority and are unlikely to question it. Adding to this pre-disposition, military members take an oath to obey the lawful orders of those appointed over them and back their leaders up in every way. They are taught how to dress, act, and think within the confines of good order and discipline. After all this training on how to follow, it can be understandably challenging to stand out and lead, particularly when it requires going against the majority. It is intimidating and difficult to challenge the institution and be a sole or minority dissenting opinion. It could even be said to be contradictory to years of training and indoctrination of a military mindset that focuses on followership. However, there are times when speaking up and challenging the system is necessary and even vital for success.
So how do we balance our career preservation, serving well, cultural expectations, and respect for the system and our superiors while still upholding what is right? How did my mentor achieve greatness at identifying and working around those barriers? The following serves as guidance and encouragement on how you can best effect change within your organization.
Choose your battles. To determine when to fight, consider others. If it affects a segment of the population (like minorities) or a lineage of people behind you (like a deployment billet triple filled), then it is time to stand up and fight. We owe it to each other and those who come after us to fix the system we are in. We are the check and balance. Every time we put our head down and accept the wrong solution, we are enabling the same thing to happen to everyone down the line.
Make a coherent argument. This is vitally important. Nothing will change without accomplishing this step. If you go into it with a half-cocked idea fueled by emotions instead of sound reasoning, you will not succeed in impacting change. There is a common saying to bring the solution, not just the problem. This is decent but incomplete advice. Prepare multiple solutions, not one solution. Be prepared for all of your solutions to have holes you didn’t anticipate, but do enough research to be confident you know as much as possible.
Be open to suggestions and compromises. Be willing to adjust your solutions or how you approach the problem based on the advice and guidance you receive.
Make your argument fit your audience. This may require you to build several different cases, one for each audience you must convince! Know what they value, why they will oppose or support your argument, and what they will and will not respond to. Do not make the argument YOU want to make; make the argument THEY will listen to and respond to. This doesn’t mean change your suggestion; it means tailor the way you present it. A good salesman can sell animal fur to a PETA member. You have to be an excellent salesman.
Fact-check. Ensure what you propose is legally and morally correct. Run your situation and your solutions by other people, not just your friends or peers, to understand outside opinions. Find subject matter experts, let them shoot holes in your plans. Ask an older mentor. Ask a younger airman. Be thorough. Ask for candid feedback and take it graciously. Adjust your solutions.
Use the chain command. The chain of command is a “chain”, and you can respectfully “climb” the chain. Rarely if ever do I hear of Airmen getting a “no” from their immediate supervisor. Once you have prepared your battle, it is time to climb up the chain as far as you need until you find an ally. To do this properly, you must inform each level of your intent to contact their supervisor. Do not do this backhandedly. People do not get themselves and their career into trouble for advocating for change and disrupting the system; they get in trouble for going about it the wrong way.
Be gracious. At the end of the meeting with your supervisor, say “thank you for your time, and I hear your answer”. If they are not initially supportive, try and further expand upon the more substantial impact such an issue may be having on the force. DO NOT engage disrespectfully, use foul language, or become hostile in any way. If the other person’s emotions start to rise, try to remove yourself from the situation.
Document the meeting. Take notes or document through an MFR. If you continue to meet resistance, continue up the chain until you have reached the highest member on your base, and document along the way!
Determine your next step. Ideally, you have found an advocate in your leadership chain. If you have, great! Check-in with them as often as is appropriate but be patient and let them help you. Change, unfortunately, take a lot of time.
Consider other options. There are agencies designed to protect the member and support change. Utilize Equal Opportunity, the Inspector General, a congressional inquiry (as a civilian), or other advocate groups. Utilize the wing, command, or headquarters level diversity and inclusion working group or other applicable advocacy groups. They are set up just to remove barriers and fix the system’s inadequacies.
Be patient. I cannot emphasize this enough. Change in bureaucracies requires persistence and time. Be the squeaky wheel, but be ready to squeak for a long time if you’re fighting for systematic change, especially at the department level.
Build a network. Surround yourself with like-minded people, and advocate together. The higher up you find advocacy, the more likely change will occur on your timeline.
Finally, lead fearlessly. Be willing to take a stand. Do your research. Be the smartest person in the room. Know and play to your audience. Know every argument your opposition will make against you. Then, fearlessly push forward. Above all else, be ready to be fired. If the cause is worth fighting for, you have to be willing to stand up and not take “no” for an answer. We owe this kind of leadership to our people and to the long line of outstanding Americans who sign up to serve behind us. We cannot continue to keep our heads down or look away.
Be willing to be fired for doing the right thing.