I’m sitting on a balcony of a beautiful condo overlooking a beach on the southern tip of Brazil. I have hot strong coffee next to me, my 4-year-old daughter playing in the private jacuzzi hottub on our balcony. I'm wrapped in a sarong, listening to waves breaking and working on my professional commitments. This is the life, let me tell you.
It reminds me of the last time I was in this country, in this state, and on this beautiful beach. That was when a leader with the ability to control my life made a decision that affected me deeply, and what that taught me about leadership, and culture.
It was 2012, and I was a 25-year-old First Lieutenant in the United States Army. Our unit had just returned from a year at war, deployed to Afghanistan, and we were already training to head back there the next year—not much down time at all. During that year, we received a new, secret, and highly important mission. The mission, which I of course cannot say much about, required that we be staged and prepared to take action in less than 48 hours, should certain conditions be met. It was also highly unlikely that anything would happen during the year that we were on ‘alert’.
The conditions of this mission meant that most folks in the leadership put their own requirements on Soldiers—including a travel limitation, for that year, almost nobody would be allowed to travel if it was not an emergency. It was a completely reasonable limitation, if you looked at if from a strictly operational perspective. The reality meant that in our one year at home, most people would not get to travel home to visit their families until right before the next deployment.
Nobody thought to complain—it’s the Army, we don’t do that. But then I got a once in a lifetime opportunity. The phone rang and it was the matriarch of a family that I had babysat for in college. They were taking the kids to Brazil and wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming along. I’d grown up in Brazil, and though it had been many years, still had a working knowledge of Portuguese. I’d be able to help them navigate an amazing country where most people you encounter still don’t speak English, and they would pay for the kind of vacation that I could not have afforded on my own. It was perfect.
Except for that upcoming travel ban. It hadn’t yet gone into effect, so there was still time to get an exception, but who would ask. Then my operations officer, an Army major, called me into his office. He’d heard about the offer through the Soldier grapevine and asked me why I hadn’t said yes. I looked at him a little stunned, as the unit’s senior intelligence officer, one who would be expected to deploy in a hurry should anything happen, I hadn’t even thought to consider an exception to policy.
He walked me through his own reasoning. First: he asked me to consider the likelihood that we would be deployed on this mission (which was part of my job to predict, and was very unlikely). Then, he asked me the likelihood that I would ever get an opportunity like this again (also pretty unlikely). Finally, we looked at the cost of a last-minute flight home from Brazil (several thousand dollars) and he asked me if I would be prepared to commit to paying that should the unlikely event occur—my answer was yes. Then he stood up from his desk and said he’d get back to me soon and walked off to make his case, my case, to the big boss, our battalion commander. When he got back, he told me to enjoy Brazil, and stay in touch.
The attitude wasn’t new or different for this boss, but it stood out against the way many other military leaders would have acted. Major X’s philosophy, he later told me, was simple: treat your Soldiers like people, including the understanding that as people they have complex lives and many things that are more important to them than just the mission, and they will stick around—not to mention be much more dedicated when things get tough. Meanwhile, many other leaders, myself included, would not have naturally taken this approach, prefer to always guard against the unlikely disaster, rather than playing into the more likely course of action, with some preparation and thought into what the reaction would be if things went wrong.
That trip taught me a lot. I learned that I could still speak Portuguese, quiet well, and years later I was even brave enough to raise my daughter bilingual. I learned that getting away for a bit can give you a whole new perspective. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I got to experience the kind of trip that people from my social class usually didn’t. And I learned about leadership—that while business operations (the mission) usually comes first, the threat of operations gone wrong doesn’t have to. With a little bit of care, paying attention to the lives of our team members, and some careful planning, it’s possible to have a strong, dedicated team, who still enjoys their lives—even in the Army.
I wouldn’t have held it against my leadership if I hadn’t gone on the trip—those kinds of restrictions were a part of the life that I’d signed up for. But did it make all the difference, in a year that I was deciding whether or not to leave the military or to stick around for what turned out to be three more years and another deployment? It sure did. That man, with his actions and different way of thinking taught me that leadership can come from a place of love, rather than fear, and that culture is not just what you do in the workplace—what you say at meetings, what you hang on the wall—but what happens between the spaces, too.
DANIELLA YOUNG IS A TEDX SPEAKER, AN AUTHOR, COMBAT VETERAN, BOARD MEMBER OF OPERATION CODE, & THE CO-FOUNDER OF CAVNESSHR—AN HR-TECH COMPANY WHO’S MISSION IS TO MAKE BIG-BUSINESS HR AVAILABLE TO SMALL BUSINESSES, THROUGH INNOVATIVE SAAS AND VIRTUAL CONSULTING. DANIELLA SPECIALIZES IN HELPING BUSINESSES CREATE CULTURE ROADMAPS, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PLANS & EFFECT TEAM TRANSFORMATION. WANT TO LEARN MORE? VISIT OUR WEBSITE AT cavnesshr.com.
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