Captain Miller’s Rule – Gripes Go Up

GW IIWar movies are sort of a cliche for finding leadership material.  For one, they are not everyone’s favorite genre’, so a respectable portion of aspirant leaders may not read any farther when someone starts quoting their favorite scenes. On the other hand, the topic of leadership is something endemic to the military, especially due to the high stakes for failure. So, there is a pretty sizable amount of material to be mined from that source.

There is a scene in “Saving Private Ryan” that takes place after the horrific opening sequence of landing on Omaha Beach.  It contains a pretty useful nugget for how you act around the water cooler (or wherever your favorite venue is). As the squad struggles along towards their objective of finding a missing soldier, there ensues some complaining about the mission.

For the leaders out there, what is the takeaway from this exchange? For me, it illustrates the damage that can be caused by griping in the wrong direction.  As Captain Miller notes, gripes go up. Always. No exceptions. Leaders griping to subordinates puts the team in a pretty awful position.  It also undermines the chain of command, and more importantly, undermines your ability to lead.

There is a big difference in attentive listening to the concerns of the team, and colluding with them in a gripe-fest toward management. As a leader of men, George Washington had plenty of reason to gripe about the lack of support from the Continental Congress.  His generals griped to him incessantly about the condition of their troops, to which he listened patiently. However, even in his greatest moment of despair, he refused to let his troops know anything other than his confidence in their ability to carry out their duties.  As history tells us, Washington’s leadership presence, public confidence and persistence in working through his organization’s difficult times was felt by every member of his team, who took heart, and continued to give him their trust and support.GW 1

When frustration happens, we may feel the need to vent. It can happen anywhere and at any time. This is where our chain of command is vital. We should all understand: in the presence of our team is not the right place to vent gripes. Those we lead should never know about our gripes. Find your boss, or leader, and gripe…up.

Complaining to (or with) those we lead does nothing but remove our own authority and destroy our credibility. It immediately makes us a member of the group we are addressing. After griping down, any time we try to assert our own authority, our efforts will be ineffective because we are now a peer, not a leader. The behavior we modeled (complaining) will ultimately come back to us from our subordinates. Either we are part of “leadership” or we are not. If we are, we need to publicly own, support, explain, and defend leadership decisions as if they are our own.

Captain Miller clearly understood his soldiers’ need to vent. He understood that to them, complaining was part of being part of the teambuilding experence of shared misery. He also knew he couldn’t join in and complain with them (or to them).

Our jobs as leaders is to manage our teams, and lead them to our objectives, while overcoming any obstacles that occur. Leadership can be lonely, especially when gripes go up, not down. Always up.