Too Unwilling to Fail

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, U.S. Government, or any other agency, institution, or organization.

The Perils of Helicopter Parenting in DoD

The Twenty Percent
There is an old adage[1] that twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. The longer that I remain a cog in the Department of Defense, the more that I am convinced that this adage is accurate. Likewise, the longer that I struggle to function as a loyal and dedicated cog, the more convinced I am that the twenty percent are as much of a problem as are the other eighty percent.

What do the twenty percent do? They come in early. They work through lunch, either eating at their desks, or just skipping lunch altogether. They stay late. They ensure that the command never fails, even when it should. When leaders impose ninety hours of requirements for an eighty-hour week, and take twenty of those eighty hours for unnecessary meetings, the twenty percent keep coming in earlier, working through lunch, and staying later. The twenty percent protects the organization from experiencing the consequences of its flawed decisions, misguided priorities, and poor resource allocation.

Helicopter Parenting
The twenty percent are the helicopter parents[2] of the DoD. Overly protected children are never permitted to fail, and thus never permitted to learn from failure. Likewise, when a senior leader directs subordinates to perform a number of tasks and abide by requirements that cannot be accomplished by, and with, the personnel and time available, the twenty percent swoop in, working later and later to make up for the mistakes of the command. That is a big problem. But, before explaining why I think this is a problem, I want to distinguish two types of poor leadership: toxic, and non-toxic.

The Army has been cracking down on toxic leaders in recent years. Toxic leaders are those who please their senior raters by getting solid results, but do so by overworking, belittling, and mistreating their subordinates like rented mules, leaving behind organizations that are burned out and demoralized. Such toxic individuals can get great results, but at an unreasonably high long-term cost to the organization. That cost is often not recognized by distant and disconnected senior leaders until administrative investigations are conducted in response to complaints submitted to the inspector general. At that point, the individual is often a field grade officer earning a large salary and eligible for a hefty retirement check, having earned his or her largesse by laying waste to multiple organizations.

Non-toxic leaders can likewise get short-term results at the expense of the long-term health of the organization and the personnel in it. They do not get results by mistreating subordinates. Instead, they get results because twenty percent of subordinates martyr themselves. That twenty percent is motivated by a professional commitment to not let the organization fail. That twenty percent, unwittingly, ensures that leaders in the organization do not learn anything, because those leaders are shielded from the consequences of bad decisions, misplaced priorities, and poor resource allocation. The twenty percent are to their leaders as helicopter parents are to their children — well intentioned, but ultimately harmful.

So, to return to the problem posed by helicopter parenting by the twenty percent, it is a problem because it enables the non-toxic, poor leader — reinforcing those negative attributes and habits that will ensure the poor leader does not improve, and removing incentives for the organization to adapt its internal processes and culture to its mission.

The non-toxic leader can get the results that senior raters demand, at great long-term cost to the organization, but do so in a respectful manner that does not trigger an IG investigation and torpedo his or her career. And then that leader can go on to lead larger units, with greater responsibilities, and greater influence upon our national security. And he or she will likely continue to display the poor management and leadership traits that were hidden, and compensated for, by the toiling of the twenty percenters. As a result, our officers continue to be shaped in a system where it is accepted that we will do more with less, and where it is accepted that we will lie to ourselves[3] and our superiors, and where there are rarely incentives for our organizations to adapt. This needs to stop.

The Eighty Percent
In this respect, the eighty percenters are the ones doing the right thing. They take the attitude of, “Do what? With what resources? With what time? Whatever. I am here until 1600 or 1700 and then you’ll get whatever I’ve done at that point.” Now, another distinguishing feature of the eighty percent is that much of their time prior to 1700 is spent on Facebook or in tweaking their resumes for the civilian job that they intend to transition into. So, I am not advocating that we emulate the eighty percent in all respects. But, I do recommend that we emulate their rational approach to work-life balance. The eighty percenters do not sacrifice their personal lives just to ensure that a poor plan, borne of a bright idea rather than an actual need, can be adequately executed. They shake their heads at the twenty percent who martyr themselves. They may even be glad that you are around, because it takes the heat off of them. And they should shake their heads. They are right. We are wrong.

Stop the Helicopter Parenting
The twenty percent need to stop being helicopter parents to their leaders. Let your organization — especially its leaders — learn from its mistakes. The twenty percent need to come in to work at 0900. They need to work their asses off until lunch time. Then, they need to go to lunch. And then they need to work their asses off again until 1700. Then go home. The work will undoubtedly pile up. The deadlines will become more urgent. Tasks will go unaccomplished. Units will actually experience failures.

Failures that expose flawed decisionmaking, misguided priorities, and poor resource allocation, will be more beneficial to the leaders and the organizations. Leaders will be forced to learn from their errors. Organizations will stop sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term and short-sighted results. They will need to revisit long-forgotten concepts like mission analysis, particularly the estimates of time and troops available. Concepts like “white space” on the calendar might be revived.

“But at what cost?”, you ask. Well, really, what would be the result if everybody in a unit did not do their mandatory online training for an entire year? Would the Russians finally invade? What would happen if the staff did not stay until 2100 every night for three weeks to churn out operations orders for unit runs, the latest heritage month, the Army birthday ball, and fifteen other random taskings? Would the Iranians take that as a sign of weakness and launch an offensive cyber operation to take down our stock exchange? What would happen if no work got done because everyone was stuck in meetings for eighty percent of the duty day, and they did not stay at work all night to make up for that stolen time? Would ISIS acquire a nuclear weapon… or would the staff simply be forced to consider holding fewer meetings?

Stop Being Part of the Problem
The twenty percent, by choosing to be the solution, is also part of the problem. Paradoxically, the way to not be part of the problem is to stop trying to be the wrong solution. Leave at 1700. Feel the sun on your pale skin. Discover what it is like to eat dinner before the sun sets. Do not check your work email at home. Wake up at a reasonable hour, workout, and then eat a healthy breakfast. Go to work rested. Go to lunch and talk about something other than work for a few minutes. You will become more productive in the limited hours at work. You will get better at identifying what is important. Your leaders will be forced to learn the same. You, and your organization, will benefit, in the long- and short-term.

Addendum (added January 2017)

I have had a lot of feedback to this article. After discussion and reflection, I will add a few clarifications and exceptions.

  1. The guiding principles behind my case are (1) the need for personnel to maintain a sustainable work-life balance in order to maintain a ready and resilient bench of personnel to man our forces; (2) the need for organizations to adapt in order to maintain ready and resilient forces; (3) the recognition that most of any U.S. military organization’s focus is on engaging a horde of 7-meter targets, largely due to their inability to properly plan for those targets when they were beyond 500 meters; (4) organizations will not make the adaptations needed unless there is dire, recognized need to do so. There will not be a dire, recognized need for an organization to change if personnel choose to be helicopter parents who cover up the organization’s cultural, structural, and systemic inadequacies.
  2. Work-life balance does not mean that you can never work late or leave early. It means, as a general rule, your workload and your productivity should be such that you, generally, can be out the door shortly after 1700. Again, should. It also means that if you are going to be awake all night thinking about some project that you did not finish, then maybe you should save yourself the torture and just stay until 1900 on that day to get it done because, to you, it is worth the peace of mind. I work with people like this. If someone forced them out the door at 1700, they would not be worried about the organization failing; rather they would simply be tossing and turning all night because they cannot stop thinking about a work product until it is complete. Work-life balance is different for everyone, but how and where you spend your time is a large part of it.
  3. I stated above that the organization may need to fail. This has led some to ask whether I am advocating that people deliberately cause the organization to fail without warning anyone or providing any constructive input on how the failure could be avoided. No, that is not what I was attempting to convey. Rather, my argument is that if the twenty percent stop helicopter parenting, the collective impact will be a gradual slowing of the rate at which tasks are completed. Eventually, there will be a critical mass where it is literally impossible for the organization to achieve, or even fake achievement of, those tasks. This will be the result of many people slightly reducing their excessive and inefficient output by leaving at more reasonable hours. The organization will eventually find itself with fifty 7-meter targets and four rounds of ammo. This will not be attributable to one person unilaterally deciding “the organization needs to fail today.” If you can foresee that the organization is literally going to fail a mission if you leave work at 1700, then that is one of those days where you should stick around, or at least discuss the issue with a superior. But, that is not my focus. My focus is on the organization changing its culture of martyrdom in pursuit of unimportant, short-term emergencies, at the expense of necessary, long-term adaptation.
  4. There are days where you not only should, but must, come in early and/or stay late. This is still the military. We train to deploy on short notice, into austere environments, operate in the day and night, and carry out tasks in dangerous situations. Work-life balance is a holistic, long-term balance. Some days will be long — like on deployments or during exercises. Some will be short — like during half-day schedules around the holidays or after a deployment. Most should be reasonable.

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Footnotes

1 It is often referred to as the “Pareto principle,” though “adage” — that is, a general truth — is more appropriate. See “Adage.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed August 5, 2016. The “Pareto principle” is not a principle, but rather a “shorthand name for the phenomenon that in any population which contributes to a common effect, a relative few of the contributors account for the bulk of the effect.” Joseph Juran, The Non-Pareto Mea Culpa, Selected Papers No 18, Juran Institute (1975), available at juran.com. The “few” and “bulk” are generally deemed to be twenty and eight percent, respectively. Thus, this adage is also known as the “80–20 rule.” See Nick Bunkley, “Joseph Juran, 103, Pioneer in Quality Control, Dies” The N.Y. Times, B7, March 3, 2008 available at nytimes.com.

2 “Helicopter parents” are those parents with “a propensity to swoop in at the slightest crisis” rather than allowing their children to work through the dilemma and, occasionally, fail. See Valerie Strauss, “Putting Parents in Their Place: Outside Class” The Washington Post, March 21, 2006, available at washingtonpost.com.

3 See Dr. Leonard Wong, Dr. Stephen J. Gerras, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty and the Army Profession” (Strategic Studies Institute, 2015), available at strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil.