Very early on in my career, I went a bit overboard trying to fit in with the guys. I’ve routinely been the only, or one of the only, women among men. In an effort to look “strong” or conversely and worse, to not look “weak”, I would follow the lead of the most Alpha Dog in the group until I could become the Alpha Dog – it was my form of survival. Looking back, I thought it was survival. Instead, it was a direct result of immaturity and a lack of professional experience. Also, I pride myself quite a bit on being an Alpha. I’m comfortable there.
The story I’m about to tell clearly outlines the pitfalls of following a dangerous lead rather than doing what you think is right. I was so concerned with being taken seriously and being seen as “tough” that I completely lost sight of the impact of my words and actions on another human being. So here goes.
I was the Executive Officer of a Headquarters company. This company housed soldiers of all stripes, from cooks to supplies to intelligence to parachute riggers. Well, one of my parachute riggers went AWOL. For several days, we contacted military police, local police, next of kin, emergency contacts and many, many hospitals. We simply could not find the missing soldier. Four days later, the soldier returned to our unit, head down, tail between his legs, and begged for forgiveness. You see, his girlfriend broke up with him and he didn’t know how to handle the heartbreak, so he disappeared for a few days, mostly in a drunken stupor.
I handled this young man exactly as I believed I should, based upon what I thought I had been taught, certainly what I had witnessed over the past few years. I shouted and swore until the roof nearly came off of the building. I later heard that others could hear me at both ends of the building, and everyone just stood in stunned silence while I gave this young, 19 year old man the reaming of his life. I was so fueled with righteous indignation that I paid his physical and emotional reaction absolutely no notice, that is, until he threw up on the floor at my feet. The vomit ALMOST hit my newly spit shined boots. That set off another round of scolding. This young soldier was shaking, crying and covered in vomit when he left my office. The entire episode lasted less than 5 minutes.
I was shaking with rage when he left. How DARE he leave his unit in the lurch like that! Making us worry! Making us work over time to meet his quota of parachutes packed so the infantry could continue jumping! Who the hell did he think he was?
Thankfully, I had a fantastic First Sergeant. The TOP enlisted man in the unit. He pulled me aside and asked if I felt good about what I just did? I said, absolutely. I genuinely thought I had handled this exactly as I should have, as a man would have. He shook his head and looked me right in the eye and asked me a pivotal question: Don’t you have a son? Yes. How old is he? He’s two years old. How would you react if someone spoke to your son the way you just spoke to YOUR soldier? I died a little inside. This screaming, raving maniac was not ME – not really…Inside, I believed that when you start screaming, you’ve already lost the argument – that was my actual belief, but I’d been trained to scream.
I spent the next few days speaking to all of my soldiers to get a real read on their perceptions of me. They were equally horrendous. They all respected my work ethic and the fact that it seemed like there was nothing I couldn’t do, but I had not earned their personal respect. I was a tyrant, a terrorist within the ranks. I had to really think: why would I do something like that? and, Is this who I really wanted to be?
I’m lucky that I learned this lesson early on and I’m grateful for that First Sergeant who took the time to call me to task and open my eyes in a way that would make me not only listen, but HEAR what he was saying. This man knew how to read people and how to make a real impact.
Why is it so easy for us to follow others when we know, deep down, that what we’re doing is at odds with our personal values? Maybe we crave acceptance and maybe that inflates our self-worth. I don’t really have that answer, but I have a different thought, one that passed down to me by my grandfather: trust your gut and surround yourself with only the very best people (however you define that). I define that as ones who share similar values but who will test you, who will lift you and who will help you be the very best version of yourself. In turn, you must offer the same of yourself, to them.