Can’t Stop Saying, Sir

Virtual Collar Device

In the military, there is clarity of role and responsibility.

Someone has a designation and rank which is clearly displayed unless a condition exists in which it cannot be.

Someone has contextual control of a situation and leads under a condition, state or mode.

Everything is simplified in the understanding of who is in charge and what needs to be done based on the condition.

In the civilian world, this clarity doesn’t exist.  As a veteran, working in a corporation I had struggled through my career to understand how command and control leadership could be intertwined with other forms of leadership.   The way we are taught to think in the military is to understand where we are in a situation and look for something to indicate quickly who has the ability and authority to make a decision quickly.

In the corporate world,  this doesn’t exist.  Many people have a referential authority or some form of authority by proxy.   The confusion comes from the use of decision-making models that leading consultancies introduce.   For a veteran, if someone describes a level in an organization, we automatically associate the level with some authoritative context.

In my mind’s eye, I have created virtual collar devices.  I still associated people with their title and level.  I also consider their authority relative to their role in context.  For example, as a DamageControlman, I had responsibility for the fire team.  At that moment while fighting a fire, it was my team.  I was accountable and responsible for the people on the team and our success.   I think about this relative to project management.   This simplistic approach is a problem because often I could assign the authority in the wrong place.  The opposite is true as well.  I have made the mistake of believing I had the ability and authority when I didn’t.

Finding a Solution to the Authoritative Dilemma

I left the military a very long time ago but worked in the DoD ecosystem for many years.  The DoD made it easy for me to continue using my preconditioned approach.   When I worked for Booz Allen, it worked for me as well.  I could lean on the fact that Booz Allen had retired senior military in leadership.  Calling someone sir or ma’am was natural.  In the civilian world, I have been told never to call a woman ma’am.  I have been told by women that I offended them by calling them ma’am because it implied something with their age.  I didn’t ever consider age as a factor but it does come across to them in that way.

I have worked with many veterans and discussed these challenges associated with language and culture in civilian organizations.   The best I have to offer here is to identify and address immediately at the moment when you are having a problem with understanding “who’s who.”  Being open about the lack of understanding also helps others in the room who lack clarity.

Open clear dialogue at the moment will either position you with the knowledge needed to move forward or open the door for more complex questions on authority.  If the latter becomes the case,  you will want to solve for that before moving forward with a project, program or solution anyway.   I have seen decision trees chopped down after months of work by lack of asking the question or understanding who really truly has the right to make a decision and has authority and accountability.


board game business challenge chess
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Open, Honest, Truthful and Clear = Success %

It’s a trap! Being open and honest from your perspective is only a portion of the equation for success.  If others are not honest, you will face a challenging situation.  You will feel alone and you will wonder what happened or how you went wrong.   From the perspective of a veteran,  I answer the questions asked of me with the best answer I have at the time.  I don’t look across the table at “who” and think “hrm, I am going to answer this question differently because this person is sitting in the room.”

One must consider understanding organizational culture and norms.  Divergent thinking is not always welcome and a lack of honesty about the reality in an organization can leave a person confused about being truthful in perspective.   Always be honest and truthful but this doesn’t mean to share that perspective openly all the time.  One must be thoughtful about timing, place, and party.  I know as a vet I struggle with this.   I always look for a team of rivals to help me understand how to navigate the difficult complexity of civilian organizations.   Ironically, our success is highly dependent on how well we interact with others in our team.   Now, that is very familiar.

Team of rivals?

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What do you think?