Many people have written about bosses; I even read a book about dealing with a boss called “The No Asshole Rule.”  Today I was talking to a young Captain who is having issues with her staff section head, an experienced officer with many years of service. Our conversation made me think about my many bosses and what kind of boss I had been, significantly as I grew in experience, age, and seniority. On balance, I had many more great bosses than not. Nonetheless, even some good bosses weren’t my favorite until I got to know them. Even the “bad” ones caused me to learn lessons I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.  Perhaps I could say I was spoiled by my brothers and my first Battery Commander, who remain the standard when I evaluate leaders, competent and caring.  Of course, some of that is about how your personalities interact as well. 

As a young officer, I was, like most, energetic and hard-working. The term “good initiative but poor judgment” could be descriptive. Still, I had enough good people around me that kept me from blowing myself up.  Every young officer isn’t so fortunate as I. So, while I had a great boss who expected us to do what needed doing, I observed the contrary. I heard from my contemporaries and saw how all of the other Battery Commanders led. As the junior lieutenant, I spent the first six months going to the field as the “Position Safety Officer” (PSO) with the other batteries.  The PSO was a safety check and effectively the artillery safety conscience of the unit.  In this role, I went to the field almost every week with a different battery.  Through these observations, I concluded that there were four kinds of leaders, the competent good guy, the competent asshole, the incompetent good guy, and the incompetent asshole. While these are gross generalizations, they are instructive.

The competent good guy; knows his job and the occupational field, cares about his people and their development, and leads by example.  This leader is easy to work for because you are always learning, and you know his intent.  Every action is about the mission and the people. The competent asshole; knows his job and the occupational field, cares about his people if it affects the mission and him, and leads for effect. You can work for this guy because most of the time, he will do what is right or not prevent you from doing what is right. However, you always have to look over your shoulder because he doesn’t have your back. You will experience rough seas periodically for mistakes made for lack of experience. The incompetent good guy; isn’t an expert at his job, but he cares about his people.  You can work for this guy, but you will have to find others to teach you about your job and occupation. However, he won’t get in your way because he knows you are good and getting better. He will only concern himself with areas in which he feels competent.  The incompetent asshole; is usually a narcissist only concerned with his success. He will either micromanage to ensure mission accomplishment or yell a lot.  The unit may be successful regardless because the other leaders hold it together, but no one will be happy. Every day will be a new crisis.  You can’t work for this guy for very long because you will be miserable. Organizational turnover will be significant, except in the military where you live with the boss you’re issued until his shortcomings become evident, and they will show eventually. Over time this guy degrades the unit efficiency and kills initiative and innovation. Now, there are leaders at every point along this spectrum, and sometimes you develop an opinion of a leader incompletely.

In the Marines, we are continually taking on new jobs in which we are untrained. We are all given jobs, at least once, that is outside of our occupational specialty. I had the unique opportunity to work for two men I came to respect and love in successive jobs.  They were polar opposite personalities and great friends. Some people loved them; some hated them; some grew to love them; they were great leaders and warriors. My Battalion Commander (CO) hired me to be his Battalion Executive Officer (XO) or second in command.  The XO runs the staff and in the field is more about logistics than operations.  When I joined the Battalion, the CO had been in command for about a year, so he knew what he wanted, and he was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known. I had served in the neighboring battery when he was a battery commander, and I was a lieutenant. He was so smart that I was a bit intimidated, and the staff was downright afraid of him.  He wasn’t outgoing, but he loved Marines. I knew he had a great heart.  When my family was offered a base house if we painted the interior, he came over for an entire weekend helping me paint. The staff, however, didn’t see that part of him.  Whenever they went in to brief him, they always walked out with more tasks.  He had a running list of projects, and the staff was killing themselves, trying to do them all. He was almost always the smartest man in the room, but he didn’t play that card; he just wanted each person to know what he knew.  This disconnect wasn’t helping the Battalion to improve. I felt caught in the middle a bit, as staff coordination was my job, and the CO didn’t understand what was going on.  Having commanded a non-standard organization a couple of times, I found success in focusing efforts through organizational dynamics and identifying prioritized unifying principles and goals. I decided to give it a go.  So, I drafted up some thoughts and took them in to sit down with the CO. To my pleasure, he had written some ideas portraying the unit priorities through interlocking rings. We hashed out some goals and the way he saw the interactions and operation of the Battalion. 

Goals in hand, I drafted some guidance for the staff, prioritizing their efforts, and we moved out.  The corner turned when we were facing a decision foisted on us by weather and range fires.  When the CO asked me my opinion, I deferred to the staff I had primed for this discussion. The staff expected their recommendations to be dismissed, out of hand. When they walked in together to see the CO, they each presented their estimate and proposal. The CO asked a few questions and decided to follow their unanimous recommendation.  From that point, the staff moved out, and my job was more enjoyable as they all coordinated with each other. The rest of that year was highly rewarding as I watched young officers grow exponentially. The Battalion performed superbly in field operations and garrison inspections. The staff had made an incomplete evaluation of a leader who was definitely one of the best I have ever known.