Stress and Its Effect on the Combat Leader

by Wiz

in Lessons,Podcasts

Today, January 17th, is the anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm, AKA “Gulf War I”.  In many ways, that operation is the exact opposite of the current conflict in Iraq – it was quick, decisive, and fairly clean, with relatively few casualties.  It was fought against an organized army that was quickly demoralized.  Because of these characteristics, whatever public opposition it generated was relatively benign by today’s standards.  I’m proud of my service in that conflict, but I would be hard pressed to compare it to what today’s military forces have faced for the last seven years.

During that time I did have the opportunity to observe – and experience myself – leadership in a combat environment.  As an aviator I have experienced periods of intense stress before, such as when my aircraft wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do.  But operating in a combat environment, and living on a floating target, was another level of intensity altogether.  As the commander of my ship’s helicopter division, I felt the stress levels rise whenever the helicopters were airborne, whether I was flying or not.  But even when they were on deck, we still couldn’t let our guard down until after we had put many miles between us and the Persian Gulf.

My ship’s commanding officer was the quintessential ship’s captain: experienced, knowledgeable, and highly capable.  Throughout our transit the captain projected an aura of calm confidence.  But combat is like fine sand: it has a way of finding any chink in the armor, and it gets in there and irritates everything it touches.  And one day the captain’s veneer of control shattered – and as I describe in today’s audiocast, I had a “front row seat” for the results.  (5:44)

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Karen Zapp February 21, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Good morning Commander Wiz!

Your post on “leadership by threat” triggered a memory. My example occurred in a vastly different environment – mine is not from a combat theater situation – but there are a few similarities.

Years ago while working in private industry in Denver, CO; I faced a hard core policy about contributing to a charity. First let me say I’m most definitely in favor of giving generously to charity!!! I just don’t like being told WHO I give to and HOW MUCH I give.

That’s exactly what the policy was. A sliding scale dictated how much you gave depending on your position. And no one had a choice on which charity – there was only one specific national charity that received our donations and I won’t name the charity here.

Given my position at that time, I was told my “fair share” was 1% of my gross salary. I declined. I did give something but it certainly wasn’t 1% of my gross salary. And I can’t begin to describe the pressure levied on me to increase my giving.

Every year during the “annual campaign” I sat through several ‘discussions’ with my immediate boss, and on up into the executive level of management, plus folks from the Personnel Department. It was incredibly stressful for me.

I have never been able to understand any company with a policy so strict on charitable giving that its leadership felt compelled to put unreasonable pressure on employees to comply. And although giving to charity is part of the social responsibility of a strong business . . . that responsibility doesn’t justify extortion.

I say extortion because I was ultimately told the following (and I quote): “Karen, either you start giving 1% of your gross salary through payroll deduction to XXX, or you won’t ever receive another promotion. You’ve gone as far as you’re going to go unless you change your attitude.”

What did I do? I held my ground. And within 6 months I voluntarily changed employers. This policy wasn’t the primary reason I left but it was a significant contributor.

That policy created an incredible amount of stress, uneasiness, and conflict among many, many employees. I wasn’t the only one who left and some left for that sole reason. Losing experienced and skilled employees certainly doesn’t help any company’s bottom line.

Leadership by threat is not only a weak form of leadership; it can also be a costly form of leadership.

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