Leadership Lessons: Turn the Rocks Over

By: Howie Cohen

When an individual serving in the US Army has the privilege to be selected for battalion or brigade-level command, that officer attends a course called the Pre-Command Course. This course prepares the officer for the challenge of commanding by providing time for reflection and conversation with peers, in addition to allowing for interaction with senior leaders to discuss their leadership philosophies. It enables a leader moving up the ranks to start thinking with an operational and strategic (versus tactical) mindset.

I attended this course myself when preparing to take command of the 112th Signal Battalion, a unit of about 500 soldiers under the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). I sat in a leadership and command panel discussion, featuring many influential military leaders that I looked up to. The panelists had many gems of wisdom for younger officers. A lesson from then Major General Pete Schoomaker [later to become Commander-in Chief United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and Chief of Staff of the US Army] was impactful for me — I’ve reflected upon it often throughout my career, and I’m convinced it helped me become a more effective leader.

When asked about his standards and expectations for leaders in his organization, Major General Schoomaker responded with the following vignette:

A leader is walking through the jungle. While walking along the path, he comes across a large rock. The rock is moving. He smells a foul odor coming from underneath the rock, and knows something is wrong. The leader has two choices. He can either choose to walk past the rock and ignore it or he can turn the rock over. If he chooses to turn the rock over, he confronts what is underneath it and exposes it to the sun. By turning the rock over, the leader deals with the problem and moves on. He picks up his pace and continues on the path. While walking, he comes across another large rock. Once again, the rock is moving and he smells an ugly odor coming from underneath the rock. He knows something is wrong. He has two choices. He can either ignore it or turn the rock over. By turning the rock over, he confronts what is underneath the rock, deals with it and moves on. Then he picks up his pace and continues on.

After completing his story, Major General Schoomaker said: “If you want to be a leader in my organization, you have to be willing to ‘turn the rocks over.’ If you are not willing to ‘turn the rocks over’ you don’t need to be a leader in my unit.”

This very simple but profound story has guided me for the rest of my career. The lessons of this vignette transcend beyond the military. Almost every day, leaders face challenges, problems, and issues. Every day leaders must decide what they are willing to act on. When a leader fails to confront challenges or deal with problems in the organization, he or she weakens credibility and trust with junior leaders. This breakdown in trust and credibility can have outsized effects.

In my experience, elite, high-performing organizations all have one common characteristic: a high degree of trust. Although trust may be defined in many ways, in Team of Teams we offer the following definition of trust: faith in the benevolence and competence of one’s colleagues.

The competence side of trust is straightforward, but sometimes misunderstood as the sole requirement between individuals and teams. Although critical for success, it is insufficient when a team requires frequent collaboration and information sharing. A competent colleague is of little use if he or she has no grasp of team members’ strengths and weaknesses due to lack of trust. Similarly, a functionally excellent team is of little use if counterparts will not share information. This climate leads to good performance in silos, but failure at the interfaces between business units.

Faith in benevolence is part of the solution to these interface failures. Effective leaders model and address this side of trust by teaching individuals, teams, and organizations which behaviors build and break down trust. They focus on the role of credibility, transparency, and vulnerability in building trusting relationships.

Effective leaders clearly, concisely, and frequently communicate their standards and expectations to their organizations. However, the most powerful form of communication is action. What a leader does versus what a leader says is much more impactful. Ducking responsibility or avoiding confrontation sends a clear message to the rest of the organization — this pattern of behavior will be replicated throughout other teams, permeating the entire culture. When the senior leader says he or she will do something, the rest of the organization does not have faith that action will actually be taken.

In contrast, when an organization exhibits a high degree of trust, a strong foundation is set for individual and organizational accountability. When all leaders hold both themselves and each other accountable to standards, expectations, and following through, the organization will likely be a high performing, effective unit marked by both competence and benevolence based trust.

In short, leaders in high-performing organizations are unafraid to “turn the rocks over,” confronting and challenges and issues, teaching and mentoring subordinates through action, not just words. If you aspire to be a highly effective leader in an elite, high performing organization, you must strive to always “turn the rocks over,” setting the right example for your team.

Howie Cohen is a partner at McChrystal Group, an elite advisory services firm that aims to build adaptable teams capable of solving the world’s most complex leadership challenges. Prior to joining McChrystal Group, Howie served for 27 years in the US Army, retiring at the rank of Colonel.