Mindful of the Future: Courage in Counseling

Bourbon & Battles is pleased to welcome Aaron Lawless as today’s guest author. Check out Aaron’s bio below the story!

Once upon a time, there was an extraordinarily inept young lieutenant. Following a long string of mishaps, he was banished from a line company to a post on the Battalion staff, where he theoretically could do no harm. For a while, he flailed about, desperate in his quest for a mentor to save him, until he latched onto the Battalion Commander. He remained pretty much useless, able to help negotiate an end to a long-running feud between the XO and S3, but only by involving the Brigade Commander. Time went by and the young lieutenant found himself in the middle of major combat operations against an invading force. The lieutenant bumbled his way through the conflict with a few lucky successes. He guided a SOF mission behind enemy lines to rescue some State Department VIPs, managed to single-handedly destroy some enemy armor with a hand grenade, and was promoted. Soon thereafter, he left military service and joined the staff of an up-and-coming Senator from his home state. When the Senator had to temporarily go into witness protection, our clumsy hero was left with proxy voting power, which he promptly bungled by proposing emergency powers legislation that allowed the former chief executive of the republic to stage a military coup and declare himself a supreme dictator.

Sound familiar? It should if you’re a Star Wars fan. Our bumbling lieutenant was never in the U.S. Army, but rather served in the militia forces of the planet of Naboo, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. His name is Jar Jar Binks, and he is a case study of failed talent management. For the purposes of discussing talent management, we will disregard fan theories that Binks was secretly an active collaborator supporting Palpatine’s coup, and simply focus on the value of being able to present subordinates with an honest, if sometimes painful, assessment of their abilities and potential for continued service. After all, if one of the Jedi, the Gungan leader Boss Nass, or Senator Amidala had at any point elected to exclude Binks from getting anywhere near a leadership role, Palpatine’s rise to power could have been thwarted and the destruction of the Republic prevented.

“To avoid an awkward and uncomfortable counseling session, I won’t tell you exactly how bad of a leader you really are. Instead, mesa thinken yousa make a great bombad general!”

Obviously, the stakes are normally not as high in the U.S. military as in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Junior military officers or noncommissioned officers are extremely unlikely to be single-handedly responsible for the collapse of American democracy, no matter what the Command Sergeant Major may think. But on a smaller scale, the stakes are not trivial, either. Not to be dramatic, but a service member’s life may well rest on a senior leader’s ability to provide their subordinates with honest counseling and feedback. Wishing to avoid wrecking someone’s career is an understandable, if inadequate, reason to avoid telling a subordinate the harsh truth about themselves. The immediate supervisor has the ability to do this, when necessary, through daily interaction and counseling. The immediate supervisor, the rater, also provides feedback on performance when it’s time for formal evaluations, but the senior rater has the crucial job of assessing the individual’s potential.

“The Army promotes on potential, not on performance.”

A former commander of mine used to say that the Army promotes on potential, not performance. Jar Jar Binks is a perfect example of why that is so. Binks unquestionably had some good moments. He aided Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in making their way to the occupied Naboo capital, resulting in the rescue of the queen and her advisors. He showed personal courage in the battle against the Trade Federation droids, and destroyed a tank with a grenade, no mean feat. He played a role in reconciling the humans of Naboo with their Gungan neighbors. He probably could have had a reasonably successful career with the Gungan military after the Trade Federation’s defeat. Instead, Senator Amidala made the mistake of putting friendship above honesty, and allowed Binks to join her Senatorial staff, travel with her to the capital, and hold her proxy vote during the events of Attack of the Clones. Binks, promoted far beyond his competency level, allowed himself to be flattered into proposing legislation that no other Senator in their right mind was willing to propose. Chancellor Palpatine’s emergency powers, granted by the legislation Binks foolishly proposed, allowed him to create the clone army, wipe out the Jedi, destroy the Republic, and establish himself as Emperor.

Jar Jar Amidala
He may not have political potential, but he was a decent bombad general, so why not give him significant legislative power and some nice threads!?

Clearly, providing negative feedback to a subordinate is not always difficult. Sometimes there are clear-cut cases—usually involving misconduct or gross incompetence—that make this kind of counseling or feedback easier to do. In those cases, the challenge is not to overcome positive sentiments based on past performance to be willing to speak harsh truth, but rather to remove negative emotion from the conversation and provide constructive criticism and feedback coupled with an improvement plan. In these cases, the Senator Amidala example is irrelevant.

“The challenge is not to overcome positive sentiments based on past performance to be willing to speak harsh truth, but rather to remove negative emotion from the conversation and provide constructive criticism and feedback coupled with an improvement plan.”

Before concluding this essay, there is another similar situation in the Star Wars sequel trilogy that, so far, hasn’t blown up in the good guys’ faces and is worth a mention when discussing talent management. The Resistance leadership in The Last Jedi faced a similar problem with hotshot fighter jock Poe Dameron (as mentioned by Angry Staff Officer). General Leia Organa got it right when she decided to bust Dameron from commander to captain after his decision to disobey orders and go rogue (pun intended) cost the Resistance its entire bomber fleet, regardless of his status as an inspirational role-model-slash-recruitment-poster and his badly-needed expert pilot skills. Perhaps the General was familiar with the story of the bumbling Gungan.

Swisher Promotion
An Army officer gets promoted by family members to the rank of Major. (via USMA SOSH Department’s Facebook page)

Senior raters and leaders at all levels can learn from Senator Amidala’s mistake. If a person performs more or less well at their current grade or position, but has no potential for increased responsibility, the leader owes it to the subordinate and to the service to be willing to say, “Look, you had some successes at your current level, but you don’t have what it takes to be a good leader at the next grade.” Past performance should be lauded, but leaders must still evaluate future potential on a regular basis, and provide an honest assessment to the subordinate.

There’s nothing wrong with preventing someone from being promoted, or barring them from continued service, if they don’t have the capacity to handle increased responsibility. Quite the contrary, it is a disservice to the subordinate and to the personnel who will in the future suffer under their incompetence if that individual receives an inflated evaluation out of a misguided desire to prevent harm to their career. Leaders, regardless of situation, unit, or branch, have a responsibility to manage their talent and grow the force of the future. Sometimes, growth requires a little pruning.

About the Author:
Aaron Lawless is an active-duty Military Intelligence officer and company commander in the United States Army. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Tarleton State University and is a graduate student at Sam Houston State University, where he is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in History. The views in this essay are those of the author alone, and do not represent those of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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One thought on “Mindful of the Future: Courage in Counseling”

  1. The trick of course, and not an easy one to pull off, is having objective and valid criteria for why the subordinate lacks that potential. Past performance is actually a pretty good indicator for future performance. So it is not cut and dry to say we promote on potential (though that is in fact the mantra of the Canadian Armed Forces as well). Everything you say is true, but you sure better have “proof” of the lack of potential.

    If Jar Jar is bilingual, has a Masters (whether it is trade relevant or not), and looks good in PT gear, you are going to have a tough time being “honest.”


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