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Gunny's Corner: How to target a G.I. Fairy - Circus act part II

My cigar had burned down to the hilt. The only drags of smoke left were nothing more than wrapper and compressed tobacco. This didn’t help the prickling hair on the back of my neck, as a foreboding sense of dread overshadowed my thoughts. Something was off and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

The circus performance was already at full tilt with Marines flying a thousand directions, yelling, running, snatching gear and a few people standing in the middle of the storm. These lost souls were frozen stiff with stress, and completely invisible.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

It’s at that moment that I discovered the origin of all the fuss. My initial situational assessment had targeted the staff sergeant as the problem, but he was just the effect. His actions were a byproduct of the input his was receiving: the cause was the captain.

She stood off to the side, just out of visible range, with her arms folded and curled brow, delivering instructions and suggestions to the staff sergeant as if she was controlling a remote-controlled car and not getting an instant response to her commands.

“Gunny, do you know that captain?” The staff sergeant followed my eyes.

“Yes, that’s Captain Thomas, she just checked into the unit,” I said.

I answered my own question in my mind. We do this to ourselves, because we don’t know any better, at least at first. After that, it’s because we’re stubborn and refuse to learn. If I’m ever Commandant (or SgtMaj) of the Marine Corps, I’m enacting a leadership rule that allows other leaders to taser you with a stun gun when you’re obliterating good order and discipline.

“Gentlemen, have any of you ever heard of a Good Idea Fairy?”

“All the time, but I’m not sure what it means.” A sergeant spoke behind us.

“The simple answer is this,” I said. “It’s when the monkey has multiple wrenches to throw and keeps launching them in succession!”

Using an analogy to explain a metaphor is almost as bad as answering a question with a question. What can I say, I was on a roll.

This captain had become the single most destructive force in our entire unit. The staff sergeant may have physically caused the disruptions, but it’s the directions of the captain that threw nature out of sync. Effective leadership cannot exist in the absence of vision.

Let me explain.

There is always chaos when moving multiple pieces in place. This relates to equipment, personnel, administration, and even special tasks. It’s the fact that they’re in motion that makes them chaotic. The natural order of things proceeds this way like the ‘circle of life’ in Lion King. We accept it as a physical law. Chaos is inevitable but manageable.

When nature is off-balanced by some artificial interference, the natural world collapses, and the circus falls apart. Our circus tent was erected because of confusion, but was now a smoldering wreck because a single plan never matured long enough to smooth itself before a new plan arrived in its place. How do we succeed in accomplishing anything if we never allow the first idea to blossom?

I recognized the Captain’s disease because it plagued me for over five years of my own career. I confused innovative thinking with project management, and found that I had become my organization’s good idea fairy. We spent more time jumping from one bright shiny object to the next, without ever investing enough time in a single one to actually foster development. To say I did more harm than good, would be misleading. I was destructive.

Innovation is about creative thinking, finding more efficient ways to accomplish specific tasks or functions. They require a vetting process to work, and evaluation time to measure success. Without that, they are just good ideas.

How did I fall into this trap? Lack of experience maybe, immaturity as leader, who knows, the fact is that it killed production. I didn’t distract from it or absorb resources away, no, I killed production like a mass genocide of red-nosed clowns. Nothing passed me without my monkey paws riddling it with goofy ideas. And what’s a carnival circus act without red-nosed clowns anyway?

I stood from my seat to approach the Captain but found myself intercepted by the Major, our Executive Officer (2nd in Command). He too observed the tomfoolery of organized disorder, and appeared a little more disheveled by the scene than I may have been. Either that or his beet-red face signaled a treacherous case of indigestion.

When I returned to my chair, the audience had dispersed and my cigar was all but dead. My lesson, however, held clearly in my mind. This is something I’d continue to ask myself every time I’m in a position of authority and responsibility.

Are you creating helmet fires? Are you sprinkling fairy dusted ideas like magic beans? Does your idea of innovative thinking involve five new things that need to happen right now, and six new things directly after that, so you can accomplish the three things you really care about? How soon is this supposed to happen? If it’s now, how many people understand your vision? If the answer is zero, do you have time to fix it?

Always allot time to step back and immediately assess the effect you’re having on your organization. Never amplify chaotic situations with confusion. The two never mix well, and you impede your role as a leader. Vision, direction, and resolution are always our focus.

We finished with a successful training exercise after two days wasted on fruitless, unvested ideas. There was only one circus tented erected, and that was in the beginning, but the good idea fairy appeared more than once. She’s a hard bugger to kill.

The captain wasn’t to blame either, since she learned her lesson a lot faster than I did. I assumed the Major found an effective story to explain his indigestion.

The rest of us walked away with a far better reminder of how important it is to manage the distractions when executing a plan. We gathered in huddles to discuss this further, concluding that someone must accept the role. This would become their sole job in crisis management. We nominated the Operation Chief, as the primary person for tasering any idiot whose ‘fairied’ ideas would bring down our circus tent. ‘Chesty’ said he could.

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