It was just another day on just another deployment in just another country, where every day seemed like Groundhog Day and the phrase, “another day in paradise” often came to mind. We were preparing for a brigade mission scheduled for that night when one of my battle captains approached the battalion commander and me: “The S-3 wants us to preposition assets at the brigade headquarters for tonight.”
I thought about it for a moment, remembering that it was Friday and that the brigade’s compound was located in the middle of the city. Friday nights were always “active” in the city and after sundown – when the mission was planned – was an especially chaotic time. “If we’re going to preposition assets, then we should probably put them with the maneuver battalions where they’ll do the most good,” I explained. “If we put them in the brigade compound, there’s a good chance they’ll be stuck there all night.” The risk was somewhat higher, but that was mitigated by co-locating assets with maneuver elements that could protect them. Our response time would be shorter and our ability to flex to the situation would be better.
The battalion commander waited for me to finish, then turned to the captain. “What do you think we should do?” he asked.
The captain didn’t even blink: “I think we should do what the S-3 wants, sir.”
“Okay, that’s what we’ll do, then,” the commander said. Then he smiled at me and walked away.
Against my better judgment, we prepositioned our assets at the brigade compound; a civil uprising of sorts in the city that night blocked all routes and our assets were – as expected – unable to support the mission as planned. Using non-standard assets, we were able to provide improvised support, but at a much higher level of risk. It was, as we often say in military parlance, a “soup sandwich.”
It wasn’t the first time the battalion commander had ignored my advice, nor was it the last. It happened so often that I gave up trying to hide my frustration. I tended to wear my emotions on my sleeve, especially when I was annoyed. And, quite honestly, I was annoyed a lot. Speaking truth to power just didn’t work with some people. I had hit a wall.
When the Truth is an Unwelcome Intrusion
In a recent post, I discussed how to speak truth to power in the most effective manner possible. In an environment where the people in positions of authority are willing and able to listen, the truth is a powerful change agent. In an environment where the people in positions of authority aren’t as willing to listen – or have no interest whatsoever in listening – the truth is an unwelcome intrusion and the consequences that come with speaking it can be brutal.
As I wrote in the aforementioned post, speaking truth to power was never an issue for me. I understood that my advice wouldn’t always be welcome and might not be accepted. But I never stopped offering that advice. I would pick and choose my battles, only offering advice when I thought it really mattered, when the issues at hand were important enough to warrant an interjection of “truth.” But two straight years of having my advice rejected was a little much; it tested my patience, my resolve, and, frankly, my desire to continue to serve.
What to do when No one listens
For all the advice I offered on speaking truth to power, those lessons came from both good and bad experiences. Dealing with the good experiences – when your advice is accepted – is relatively easy. The bad experiences tend to build “scar tissue.” So, how do you deal with those negative experiences? What are you supposed to do when you speak truth to power and no one listens?
First, take it in stride. The classic advertising slogan, “never let them see you sweat,” comes to mind. There are any number of reasons why your advice might not be accepted, and you may not know all the reasons involved. Don’t let your emotions overrule your better sense. Second, unless there is a significant safety issue involved, let it go. We all know “that guy” who just can’t let something go after a final decision has been made. You don’t want to be that guy. Third, don’t hold a grudge. Don’t pout. Don’t poison the well with attitude. If you made your case and you were summarily ignored, get on board and support the decision that was made. Nothing tears an organization down faster than someone with a grudge. Finally, if events ultimately prove you right, don’t gloat. Whatever you do, don’t say “I told you so.” Trust that people will remember that you pressed the truth and that you’re someone worth listening to. Be the better person.
However, when lives might be at risk or legal issues could be involved, you have a moral obligation to press your case. Know your options, but make sure you give your leadership a chance to respond before going over their heads. And, most of all, understand that there might be consequences to you. Retaliation is a term in common use for a reason.
As I wrote in my earlier post, the decision to speak truth to power is both deeply personal and fraught with risk. Oftentimes, egos are involved in the decision to reject the truth, egos that are both deeply flawed and highly fragile. If you’re the person who tends to be speaking the truth the most often, you might find yourself dealing with jealousy, envy, and revenge. The consequences that usually accompany those are not likely to be positive in nature. That said, if you truly believe in speaking truth to power, you have to do so regardless of the consequences. Don’t let yourself be the person who constantly asks themselves, “Why didn’t I speak up?