People love to talk about themselves. It’s an early lesson for many, particularly in intelligence, but also in politics, journalism, and a plethora of other careers. It’s a healthy attribute – it helps us to connect to one another, build our inner circle, and relate to other cultures – but when the ego becomes programmed to draw a constant comparison between our own experiences and the experiences of those around us, a culture of inadequacy and exaggeration is formed. Instead of an environment of growth and empowerment, we create one of stagnation which sucks the motivation out of a large percentage of the work force. We feel the need to “fluff” our resumes and stories, as if our actual life experience isn’t really enough, and we create a sort of “laundry list” of events that make us who we are. There’s no laundry list. The entirety of our journey makes us who we are, not just the catch-phrases that sound good to other people.
“Cool guy clubs” are particularly prominent in a military environment, and are a primary contributor to many psychological effects that follow military service. Particularly during their first decade, whatever experience a service member gains is never really enough. I remember reporting to my second command following a pretty intense tour which featured some of the toughest mental training a sailor can go through, followed by a deployment to the Horn of Africa and another to Central America. I’d been broken down and rebuilt a number of times, but the first question my new supervisor asked was, “So what ship were you on?” When I responded that I hadn’t served on a ship (other than to travel to various third-world countries), he responded, “Don’t worry – we’ll make a real sailor out of you.” I was a non-commissioned officer with multiple medals and warfare specialties, but evidently, I wasn’t a “real” sailor.
Even before then, during my first tour, you weren’t one of the “Cool guys” unless you were an expert marksman. Or an interrogator. Or unless you’d been through SERE, or been OC sprayed. There was an endless list of experiences that evidently mattered, but it was only comprised of things you hadn’t already done. I always thought that it was a phenomenon exclusive to the military, but as it turns out, it isn’t.
“Oh, you run a blog? Did you break a thousand followers yet?”
“Oh, you’re an author? How many books have you published?”
“Oh, you’re getting married? First time?”
“Welcome to the Company! Have your degree yet?”
Instead of contributing to the journey of others, we compare ourselves to them.
Instead of flaunting all the reasons that leaders are in a leadership position, (This is why I have authority over you. This is why I am cooler than you.) leaders should be validating not only the experience of their employees, but also the personality traits and organic strengths that they each contribute to the team.
Upon taking my current position, my boss handed me a drawing of a blank check. He said, “You know what that is? It’s empowerment. I wouldn’t have hired you if I didn’t trust your judgement. As long as you know you can deliver what you promise people, you don’t need to ask my permission first.”
So break down that “Cool guy” culture. It’s not about who is the most tactical, who has been shot at the most, or how cool your Oakley’s and five-eleven pants are. It’s about humble confidence, a proactive attitude, and enabling your people to achieve their truest potential (rather than trying to hold them under your thumb and keep them at a place that makes you comfortable).
Leadership isn’t comfortable. Train your replacement – hell, train your CEO’s replacement. Help your people to achieve their dreams, and in doing so, you’ll make endless progress toward achieving your own. And if you get good at that, make everyone you meet one of “your people.” Humanity is a group experience. If you find a passionate person out there who has managed to escape complacency, encourage their passion. Don’t rid them of it.
-A proud non-member of the Cool-Guy Club