Do We Really Understand?

By: James McLaughlin
On Undersanding

It’s both easy and natural for us as leaders to believe we understand the most serious problems our formations face. Compassion is a central tenet of leadership, so when faced with deep seeded problems like systematic dishonesty, racism, or a climate where Soldiers feel uncomfortable reporting toxic behavior, most good leaders naturally try to empathize with the problem. However, we as leaders can easily but mistakenly translate this empathy into a belief that we also have a deep understanding of these core issues. While this leadership lapse is born out of good intentions, it still is one worth examining and, more importantly, worth working on as leaders.

Listening

In late fall 2017, I was fortunate enough to be selected to become the aide to the incoming division commander to the 25th Infantry Division. In the run-up to taking the position, I noted that he was about to become the first person of color I had ever had in my direct chain of command in either my four years at USMA or (at that time) eight years of service as a commissioned officer. Prior to assuming my new role as his aide role, I went over to his quarters to both link-up with him and get started on my transition. While I was there, he told me a story about his previous assignment as the Deputy Commanding General for Support in the 82nd Airborne Division. As he recalled in clear detail, he was walking back into the Division headquarters one morning after PT with his driver when a young captain stopped them both. Both the then-Brigadier General and his driver were wearing OCPs with rank clearly visible. The Captain then looked at his driver and said, “You know, in the 82nd Airborne, NCOs salute officers”. He had not even bothered to look at the Brigadier General standing in front of him or notice who he was. While BG Clark quickly and conclusively educated the young officer on his bias and error in judgement, the larger implication of the story was clear. This captain had seen two people walking and because of his built-in perceptions, assumed that a Soldier of color could not be a leader of superior rank, much less a general officer. The lesson (the now) Major General (MG) Clark was trying to teach me was that the issue of race was still very real in the Army and there were experiences in his career that were unique due to the color of his skin. Intellectually and emotionally, I thought I understood his point and, more dangerously, understood the problem. I was wrong, and it would take me 18 months to learn that.

Seeing

The first time I remember it happening was only a few weeks into being an aide. We were in Korea and MG Clark had a scheduled Secret Video Teleconference (SVTC) with the then incumbent US Forces Korea Commander, General Brooks. The only facility that had the facilities necessary was the USFK Headquarters and General Brooks’ only available time was an ungodly, pre-dawn hour. We moved into the building and, as we were waiting to enter the SVTC suite, a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) walked out of the room. He looked at me, and then looked at MG Clark. Then, without saying a word, he began to walk away. MG Clark, sensing that the LTC had not noticed him, said “Good morning”. The LTC turned, gave my boss another short glance and simply responded “Morning”. MG Clark then identified himself and his position, and, since the SVTC was about to start, left me to ask the LTC to explain failure to abide by what are standard customs and courtesies. The LTC stated he simply “hadn’t seen” MG Clark. This would be far from the last time I heard this response.

This type of incident would happen with regularity during my 18 months as an aide. Sometimes a Soldier would salute me and ignore MG Clark. Sometimes an officer would wait for me to salute them rather than rendering the requisite salute to MG Clark. But every few weeks, people would fail to notice MG Clark. The response in these instances was almost uniformly “I just didn’t see him”. When I would walk places either alone or with officers who looked like me, I was never ignored; I was never “not seen”. I always received the proper military courtesy my rank called for. The difference? Most officers in the Army, like me, are white whereas MG Clark is a black officer.

When this first started happening, I was angry. This feeling quickly transitioned to concern and sadness. Weren’t we better than this? Wasn’t the Army about one common identity? Isn’t respect an Army value? We hold ourselves to the standard of being a meritocracy, with the underpinning that each Soldier is treated based on their talents alone. Yet, with frequency, I was witnessing a senior leader being treated differently because of nothing other than the way he looked. An even worse realization was this―if this was the way that a general officer was being treated, what was happening to our junior Soldiers and our company grade officers of color? What message was being sent to our future?

After each experience, the reality of different treatment based on race began to become more real. Something that had seemed like a problem I understood turned out to be something I really didn’t. Even after seeing it firsthand time and time again, I realized that I was far from fully understanding the issue.

Learning

The 18 months I was able to spend as an aide-de-camp to MG Clark were easily some of the most formative of my career. While I could fill book after book with the lessons I learned, the most transformational was realizing that there are problems in our formation that many of us think we understand that we simply don’t. I firmly believe that these blindspots are rarely due to malice or because leaders don’t care, but instead simply from a lack of firsthand experience with an issue. While there is no easy solution to this challenge, I would offer the following are some ways that we as leaders can improve:

1. Acknowledge that there are things we as leaders will never fully understand

The first thing I learned from this experience is that unless you’ve personally experienced a problem, it is unlikely you fully understand the issue.  We can listen, we can learn, and we can empathize, but we’ll never have the same perspective as someone who has been on the receiving end of racism, sexual harassment and assault, or any of the other serious issues facing our formations. What we as leaders have to do is realize that this gap of understanding exists. From there, we can work to lessen the divide and seek ways to gain a broader perspective.

2. Get yourself closer to the problem

If we want to truly understand the tough problems better, it’s vital to get closer to the issues. Spend time with those in your formations who are experiencing these issues. While all Soldiers deserve equal care and proper leadership, it’s probably the underrepresented population in your formation who is walking a tougher path. See how they’re being talked to, how they’re being treated, and just listen. Do people treat them the same way you’re treated? Do they have to overcome obstacles that you haven’t? Do they feel like their chain of command treats them differently? Chances are that the answers to these questions may change your perspective as a leader.

3. Learn your blindspots

This lesson doesn’t boil down to simply group identity or labels. Instead, think about what the tough issues are in your formation and then think about whether or not you’ve had personal experience with them. If you haven’t, acknowledge that these are your blindspots. Consequently, listen more and talk with greater care about them. Seek people who have had these negative experiences and ask them what they think is a better answer. As against our programming as it can be, sometimes it’s better to let someone else take charge in situations where we may not have as good a read as someone who has gone through a hard moment.

4. Get comfortable with discomfort

Tackling these issues is never pleasant. Just the terms sexual assault, racism, or reprisal generate and elicit a host of responses within our formations. These topics have created deep scars in many of our Soldiers. We need every single member of our formations to feel trust, to feel respected, and not to simply be on the receiving end of well-meaning empathy. We need to understand that there are things as leaders that we simply don’t understand- and that’s ok. Be ok with talking about uncomfortable things. Acknowledge that we haven’t always gotten it right― and we won’t always in the future. Most of all, be ok saying that you don’t understand, but you’re willing to learn. If we do that, if we acknowledge where we need to improve our understanding, then we can further close the gaps in trust in our formations and build the cohesive, trusting teams that are necessary to win in battle.

Moving Forward

This problem is not one that can be easily solved, and it definitely cannot be addressed completely with the four simple steps above. I’m also not suggesting that empathy is a bad trait as a leader.  What I am saying is that more is needed. What leaders must realize is that many of the junior soldiers and junior leaders in our force have life experiences that need to be addressed with more than just empathy. These problems require leaders to acknowledge their blindspots, to gain better understanding of these critical issues and, as a result, become more effective in creating the feeling of belonging we need in our Army. Leaders need to realize that there are things we will never truly understand, but we can close the gap of understanding. In fact, we must.

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MAJ James McLaughlin is currently a masters candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He commissioned from the United States Military Academy in 2010 and has previous served as a Rifle Platoon Leader, Rifle Company Commander, Headquarters Company Commander, and Aide-de-Camp. James is also a CJO Leadership Fellow and a recipient of the 2019 General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the DoD, the US Army, or Columbia University.