Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

“Sometimes the highest form of action is inaction.” In this episode, I share a recent experience where I deliberately held myself back from “helping” a teammate. Leaders have opportunities to let their teammates fly, but we have to recognize them ahead of time to make sure we don’t miss them or get in their way. If you put the work in ahead of time as a team, you can trust each other when it’s game time. 

Recently I accompanied my teammate in briefing our 3-star general on a project we’ve been working on. My teammate is the lead for the project in our headquarters and she’s in the division I lead. We’ve been running this project since the start of the summer and we are almost near the finish line, hence our leadership’s interest in our progress. We were told two weeks ago by our leadership that we are on the agenda to brief our 3-star in an event dubbed the “skull session,” which is essentially a pared-down staff meeting that has a rotating agenda based on the timing and tempo of information that needs to get our 3-star for decision or awareness.

We prepared our briefing together and had several reviews with our directorate leadership. They have attended these skulls sessions previously and we haven’t, so it was good to get their insight on the dos and don’ts. I have briefed generals commonly in my past, so I was comfortable in just knowing I was going to be able to talk to our 3-star directly and in a small setting. That isn’t a flex, that is just the responsibility I had at the time and those experiences have molded my confidence to talk to a general officer anytime, anywhere. They are just people with different responsibilities than me, but we are on the same team looking to help each other. I made the decision to let my teammate do the briefing by herself with me as backup, as I deliberately wanted her to take advantage of the facetime with senior leadership and up her street cred. She nervously looked forward to the opportunity, but I ensured her that I wouldn’t let her fail.

Right before the briefing, she tells me, “Hey Sir, so I’d appreciate it if you just let me do the whole briefing. If I need you to save me because I’m not sure where to go, I’ll look at you and you’ll definitively know I’m asking for help. If I don’t look at you, I still have it, and let me keep on going.” I told her, “Roger that. Aim for five minutes, because there are other subjects on the agenda, including mine right after yours.” I had more to say, but I saved it for after the briefing. We enter the room and find that the slide deck isn’t going to be projected due to technical issues. Luckily someone brought a hard copy, since the day prior all of our laptops weren’t working because of a CAC reader update…classic cyber shenanigans/blue-on-blue fratricide. 

My teammate starts her briefing with the general and the conversation goes up and down. Since she doesn’t have the slides to help keep her thoughts organized, she kind of goes all over the place in her delivery flow. The general asks her questions where the answers are on the slide deck, but her nerves get the best of her, and she sort of fumbles through her notes and gives a long or misdirected response as opposed to what our Director affectionately describes “Answer the F@#$%g question.” I don’t jump in as requested by her, and I try to maintain a stoic posture and let her talk her way out of her responses to the general. Only towards the end of the discussion where I feel the energy has stagnated a bit do I find an appropriate opening and I jump in to provide the long-term way ahead we are looking for from this project: using the information to inform policy and process updates that will “bake in” our recommendations so that our equities are carried forward smoothly and deliberately as opposed to piece-meal in nature. My teammate was the technical expert on this process, but my role was to ensure our efforts were not just a one-time event, but rather an effort that would build momentum towards achieving the goals of our three-star general as he has outlined for the next couple of years. I knew I had the words in my head and jumped in, but only after my teammate spoke for maybe 10 minutes with our leadership. The three-star general picked up what I was throwing down and saw everything pulling together. A few more details were discussed that we needed to take action on, and we were directed to prepare to give this briefing again at higher level senior leader meetings where we would be informing a larger audience on the work that has been accomplished. Overall it was a successful briefing. I ended up NOT giving my briefing because the last topic was more time-sensitive and mine was just an informational briefing. We were excused by the three-star and we left. I found out afterward the information briefing was given by my Director…and I wasn’t mad that I didn’t have to brief it. 

We left the conference room and headed down to the cafeteria to decompress. I told her she did a good job and let’s just chat about what just happened. I gave her some high and low points and reminded her that we still have more briefings to give, so this isn’t over. I also told her a story where I did the EXACT same thing she did: as a Major, was tapped to give a briefing to a one-star general. I was working for a Colonel at the time and I asked him, “Sir, when I give the briefing, please let me give the whole briefing. I have a flow and rhythm to my messaging, and if you skip ahead to slide 7 when I’m still at slide 3, it will throw me off. I’m confident I can nail this, I just need you to let me go.” He responded, “Alright, but I reserve the right to add color commentary if I see things going off-center.” I responded, “Of course Sir, but I’m confident I won’t.” In that instance, the same thing happened in my past that just happened: my leadership gave me some freedom of maneuver and came in only when really needed. We laughed about the similarity in the stories, and I told her this is why I honored her request and let her keep briefing even when it seemed like struggling. She got it right over time, and I felt we both performed well enough that our leadership already signed us up for more. A tale as old as time: if you do good work, you’ll get rewarded with more work, hahaha!

The point of this story is that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because I could come over the top and take over the conversation with the three-star general doesn’t mean I had to. My teammate knew the material, she just fumbled a bit in delivery. In some instances, leaders would err on the side of caution and jump in to “save” their teammate, instead of just letting them fix it on their own. If I did jump in, I would’ve broken the trust that was requested earlier and would have to repair that relationship, regardless if the briefing was successful or not. Leaders need to recognize when their teammates are in a situation that is recoverable and allow them to figure things out on their own. Those experiences actually help them build their confidence, either by having them earn a win or personally experience a learning moment. 

Both endings are beneficial to the teammate as they continue to grow as a leader, and isn’t that what we are charged with? Grooming and developing the next generation of leaders behind us. Sometimes we have to let go of the bicycle seat and let the kid try to ride on their own. They might fall, but they’ll be ok. They’ll get up and try again, and our job is to encourage them to keep trying until they are successful. Maybe give them some tips here and there, but we need to trust our teammates that they can ride without us. You’d be surprised how much someone can perform with the right amount of oversight if you spend the right amount of time with them beforehand. Like most sports, the time spent in practice is critical to game time. Leaders need to work with their teammates at the right time and place, and then step to the side to see how they can perform on their own. You may feel nervous about it but get over it. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

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Let’s build something together.