“YOU WEAK AND WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT!”
The year is 2004. I’m a wet-behind-the-ears recruit in the Canadian Armed Forces, and I just had my scrawny ass handed to me by a lion of a man—part Ron Swanson, part Major Payne — Sergeant O’Neil. For the longest 2 minutes of my life, I had perplexing expletive combinations vehemently barked at my face because I left a weapon unattended. Visibly shaken, I’m reassured by a fellow soldier. “Don’t worry, Khan” he says. “It’s an honour to get chewed out by O’Neil. That guy has seen some crazy shit.”
Over the next 3 years, I would serve under almost every type of leader imaginable. On one end of the spectrum, I had the fear of god drilled into me by types like Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. On the other end, types like Inglorious Basterds’ Lieutenant Rain motivated me to levels of peak performance bordering on sociopathy. And I respected each and every one of these non-commissioned officers, men who earned their positions of authority by promotion through the enlisted ranks. The common denominator between all these managers of men was was that they were unquestionably good at their jobs. No matter how much we toiled, us soldiers simply couldn’t outshine them. These officers were never caught slipping. Ever. They ran faster than us, climbed higher than us, shot more accurately than us and more-or-less out-anything’d us. And we lionized them for it. We’d trade fable-like anecdotes of their tours of duty, stories of their remarkable work in action. The type of work that’s alone enough to command undeniable respect from thousands.
“We salute the rank, not the man.” — Capt. Sobel (Band of Brothers)
The Unwritten Rule
But from time-to-time, I’d witness a strange practice in which non-commissioned officers like Sergeant O’Neil would be forced to salute significantly less qualified men. And they absolutely resented this practice. Imagine being a highly skilled and battled hardened soldier, and having to salute a rookie officer—who has never seen a single day of combat — who only wears more stripes than you because he has a university education. It’s soul-crushing. This practice was justified with the unwritten rule of “salute the rank, not the man.” Watching the desk-dwelling officers nervously fumble during parades became entertainment, a way for those who knew that they could out-soldier their bumbling asses to be reassured of the meritocracy that should be.
When I joined the workforce, the non-commissioned vs. commissioned dynamic resurfaced, magnified. People in leadership positions were constantly being undermined, their judgement questioned and abilities consistently outmatched. For most incompetent leaders, attrition, disobedience or worse, mutiny, is merely one fuck-up away. I have to wonder why are some of us are still onboard when our captains are clearly drifting us astray. Why are we still tolerating leaders whom we can outmatch, leaders whose contributions to the team seem negligible? Our economy is being razed by a generation of makers, and at this particular intersection of technology, business and design, the need for a comprehensive set of technical skills is crucial. Without them, I’m unclear as to how anyone will outlast the next decade. In Mastery, author Robert Greene states that the future “belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” The ones who should lead, are the ones with technical skills honed through experience; those who can vs. those who can’t – the lions among us, who can execute better than anyone else.
“You watch those nature documentaries on the cable? You see the one about lions? You got this lion. He’s the king of the jungle, huge mane out to here. He’s laying under a tree, in the middle of Africa. He’s so big, it’s so hot. He doesn’t want to move. Now the little lions come, they start messing with him. Biting his tail, biting his ears. He doesn’t do anything. The lioness, she starts messing with him. Coming over, making trouble. Still nothing. Now the other animals, they notice this. They start to move in. The jackals; hyenas. They’re barking at him, laughing at him. They nip his toes, and eat the food that’s in his domain. They do this, then they get closer and closer, bolder and bolder. Till one day, that lion gets up and tears the shit out of everybody. Runs like the wind, eats everything in his path. Cause every once in a while, the lion has to show the jackals, who he is.” — Mike (Poolhall Junkies)
Those Who Can
Maybe this is a tad anachronistic, but some organizations are in dire need of reverting to the idea of a warrior/hero king. Privilege, policies and papers are all ineffective ways to select the person most fit to lead. It all comes down to those who can vs. those who can’t. Did the Khals democratically elect Khal Drogo to lead the Khalasar? Was King Leonidas randomly selected to lead 300 Spartans into battle? Consider for a moment how team captains are chosen. They are selected from among the top percentile of performers, men who can command respect among their peers. Now compare that to the processes that put Rob Ford in power. Do you see the problem? To their detriment, many organizations have marginalized or ruled out the one factor that is essential to leadership — the killer app — the technical skill(s) that a person is respected for. Despite his business acumen, Damon Dash ceded power to Jay Z because he couldn’t out-rap him. Similarly, Wozniak couldn’t out-innovate Jobs. People know to play soldier when it’s obvious that the general is the right guy to lead the charge. In this model, leadership crises are mitigated. After all, how can you outshine the master, when he is, in fact, the master?
Those Who Can’t
Conversely, I know of organizations where executives were demoted because their entire team could outperform them. I know of organizations where no one took an executive seriously because the only thing he excelled at was being a tool. Imagine sitting in a meeting with this executive, where he’d provide “direction” — and after he exited the room, you pretended like the last 15 minutes never happened. Disastrous. Going back to Rob Ford, we have here a man entrusted with the well-being of a city, who has bled staff and public support due to his gaffes and lies. Members of his cabinet are refusing to put up with someone as incompetent and lacking in integrity as the disgraced Toronto mayor. The position is out of the question, they simply don’t respect the man.
“In the future, the great division will be between those who have trained themselves to handle these complexities and those who are overwhelmed by them — those who can acquire skills and discipline their minds and those who are irrevocably distracted by all the media around them and can never focus enough to learn.” — Robert Greene, Mastery
I encourage you to actively try to discover the thing that you were meant to do for the rest of your life. It helps you to visualize the range of skills you need to acquire in order level-up. Turn to platforms like Skillshare andUdemy for a wide range of skills. Coursera and AcademicEarth offer more university-level courses to enhance your knowledge. Khan Academy, Code Academy, Treehouse, Learn Code the Hard Way, Code School and Code.orgmake learning web design and development fun and easy. My personal favourites, General Assembly, 99u and TutsPlus, enhance your business and creative skills.
Master + Repeat
Goals aren’t enough to learn/sharpen skills. You’ll need to create a system. Habitualise learning, training and application. Most importantly, seek mentorship. In my short career, the one thing that has gotten me the interview (and the job) every single time, has been my set of technical skills. I can design, develop, write, etc. And my ability to raise the levels of any of these skills for the job at hand, combined with my ability to find creative combinations of these skills, has been directly proportional to the success of any endeavours undertaken. That’s why I’m spending the rest of my year mastering the skills I have, acquiring new ones, and repeating the process over again. For you and I, this ability to develop new skills is what I believe to be the most crucial killer app for 2014 and beyond.
This post was originally published on Medium.