If you haven’t worked in the military or alongside the military as part of a larger operation, you may think that the danger of being in a warzone or the importance of the overall mission may supersede the political games people often play in organizations.
I wish that were true.
I was part of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) from December 2012 to December 2013. I quickly learned upon my arrival was that NTM-A comprised myriad types of people from myriad groups around the world. In general, however, there were three groups: the military and members of national police forces (from many countries), U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) civilians, and civilian contractors. Many of the DoD civilians were part of a group known as Ministry of Defense Advisors, or MoDAs.
The MoDAs were participants in a special program that trained experienced government civil servants and retired military personnel to be advisors to the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Doug (not his real name) was a MoDA. He was a GS-15, which refers to the U.S. government pay grades for civilians. It also means that he was roughly the civilian equivalent of a U.S. Army colonel or U.S. Navy captain. That’s important because it means he outranked me at the time by two levels. Doug was also former military, so he knew about rank structure, and he frequently used it to his advantage.
Being a relatively friendly (I think) person who advised Afghans in similar areas as Doug, I would sometimes discuss matters with Doug and work with him on various issues. One of my main areas that I was working upon was literacy, because about 70 percent of the Afghan National Police either couldn’t read at all or couldn’t read at a level high enough for them to do their job. That makes it kind of hard to enforce laws and be a good police officer.
The Afghan police colonel whom I advised—a friendly, animated, jet-black-bearded man in his 40s or early 50s of Pashtun ethnicity—needed his boss at the Afghan Ministry of Interior to authorize him to do anything related to literacy training for the police. This highlights one of the many frustrating aspects about working within the Afghan governmental structures: Everything was highly centralized. That means that decision-making happened at a much higher level than is typical in most U.S. organizations.
Instead of a colonel just “getting things done,” he’d need to get his boss to approve, and often he’d need his boss’ boss to approve. One wrong misstep would cost the colonel his job, and maybe more. This fact made progress slow and significantly concentrated power at higher levels within the Afghan bureaucracy.
Doug’s job was to mentor my Afghan colonel’s boss, who was an overweight, clean-shaven lieutenant general of Hazara background who had a habit of avoiding direct eye contact and often looked rather sleepy. Because Doug mentored him, I could sometimes get my Afghan colonel to do things by asking Doug to tell his Afghan lieutenant general to tell my guy to take action. So Doug and I had a limited-yet-amicable history of working together.
The problem was that Doug had the habit of often trying to get people who didn’t directly work for him (like me) to do work that he should be doing himself. One week in late July 2013, Doug mentioned to me that his Afghan lieutenant general would be convening a “literacy working group” on the following Saturday to address literacy training issues within the police. I replied that it sounded like a good idea, and that he should tell his lieutenant general to be sure to invite my Afghan colonel. Although he didn’t directly say it, Doug implied that I should be at the meeting as well.
The problem with me attending that meeting, however, was three-fold. First, the meeting was at the Ministry of Interior, a location to which my unit didn’t typically travel. So going there would present a logistical issue in terms of transportation. Second, if I attended the meeting, I would be implicitly reinforcing the notion that NTM-A would do most of the work—work that needed to transition to the Afghans. Third, and most importantly, being present at the meeting would perpetuate the notion—both on the Afghan and NTM-A sides—that literacy training for the police was an issue to be relegated to one single, relatively powerless Afghan colonel. Instead, the lieutenant general at the Ministry of Interior, Doug’s guy, needed to own the program for it to be successful.
As such, Saturday came and went. I didn’t attend the meeting. I fully expected that Doug would be annoyed that I didn’t do what he wanted, but for the good of the program overall, I was fine with that. I also fully expected Doug to confront me on my lack of attendance the following day. I discussed this on Sunday morning with my Dutch officemate, a friendly major with an equal appreciation for cigarettes and coffee. Sure enough, within the next 30 minutes, my phone rang. I could tell by the phone number that appeared on my phone that it was Doug.
I looked over at my Dutch colleague and said, “Watch this.”
“Good morning, Doug! How are you doing, my friend?” I said with over-caffeinated exuberance.
An awkward pause.
“Lieutenant Commander Baran, we missed you at the meeting yesterday.” I could tell that my friendliness had taken him off guard. “Oh, wow, Doug, I didn’t know I was invited.”
Another awkward pause. “Well, your guy was there, and it was all about literacy, which is your thing.”
“So, Doug, is this literacy working group going to meet again?,” I said. “Because if so, it really needs to be driven by your guy’s office.”
“Yeah, I’ll let you know. I think they have another meeting planned soon.”
“Sounds great, Doug. Keep me in the loop for sure. Have a great day.”
“You too, commander.”
The conversation took less than 45 seconds. If I had gone with my default attitude—my initial evaluation of the situation—I would have most likely been annoyed and somewhat confrontational. That would have come through in both what I said and how I said it. The conversation would have likely turned out poorly, and my working relationship with Doug would have suffered.
More importantly, our mission with the Afghans would have suffered as a result.
But because I deliberately chose to shift my attitude toward something positive, it caught Doug off guard. Much like a jiu jitsu fighter uses his opponent’s momentum to win the match, taking the high road with a positive attitude can quickly shift how people react to us.
Doug and I continued to have a productive working relationship after this small incident. I’m confident that it had much to do with the attitude that I chose to own as it pertained to him and our work together.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s hard to choose your attitude in situations like this. I’ve failed in this exercise far more times than I’ve succeeded.
But being the “bigger person” frequently involves swallowing your pride and truly considering the long-term implications of how you interact with and treat those around you.
About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.
Ben is also the author of the e-book, The Navy’s 11: Reflections and tips for leaders everywhere based upon the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. It’s full of ...
- Leadership guidance, based upon the U.S. Navy's Leadership Principles, which have been used to create and sustain the greatest navy known to humankind;
- Real-world examples, based upon my nearly 20 years of experience with the U.S. Navy and a decade of academic research combined with business consulting;
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- Much more!