Sean A. Acosta
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus describes his evening meditation in a passage from The Golden Verse. In it he writes, “Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes until you have reckoned up each daytime deed. Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?” [i] In these words, Epictetus implores his students to reflect on the day’s events, and more importantly, their actions. Military leaders often encourage and even mandate the execution of after action reviews following training exercises or individual training events. In that review, these same questions are asked in a similar manner. Army leaders dedicate time to capture best practices and areas that should be improved. However, when was the last time you reflected on your own abilities to lead an organization or small team? When was the last time you reflected on your ability to follow? At times, the ability to self-reflect becomes lost in the military - a profession dominated by alpha-type personalities. Nonetheless, it is a critical part of leading and should be exercised daily, utilizing the three questions Epictetus posed, to improve your ability to lead individuals and organizations.
The Answers to Epictetus' Questions
Where did I go wrong? Humans, particularly those in the military, have an innate ability to identify the shortfalls of others, but when asked to perform this task internally, the ability to find fault suddenly vanishes. Why? This undertaking requires humility. Humility is a quality that is unknowingly suppressed during initial indoctrination into the military and in special operations training pathways, and sometimes, people are just arrogant. Soldiers, particularly those in Special Operations Forces (SOF), are told they are or will be a part of the best. United States Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) recent review of culture and ethics cited that SOF training pathways “…foster an unhealthy sense of entitlement.”[ii] While this may not be the case for all who serve in leadership positions, it is something that begins early in careers. If this misfire is not corrected, it can morph into leaders that ignore subordinates’ suggestions and recommendations due to ego.
The lack of humility found in those not in assigned leadership positions, but are influential members of the unit nonetheless, can often do more harm than if those in traditional leadership positions lack humility. Leadership is not limited to a position or title. At its core, leadership is about influencing others. The Army defines leadership as, “The process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.”[iii] This definition doesn’t state that leadership can only come from those in formal leader roles, nor does it state that those outside of assigned leadership positions cannot lead. Informal leadership is an inherit part of all organizations and the actions and attitudes of these individuals can make or break an organization.
How often have you observed a peer openly discuss the shortfalls of unit leaders? We have all witnessed it and know that it is contagious, particularly if it comes from a high-performer or otherwise compelling individual. A healthy alternative would be to address these concerns with the leader behind closed doors. Vice versa, those in formal leader roles must be humble enough to recognize that they may not have made the best decision or there may be a better way to solve a problem. Being humble enough to seek counsel from trusted subordinates and peers further enables us to reflect on the mistakes that we may have made. Any other response demonstrates a self-absorbed perspective by both parties and usually leads to poor relationships, which are devoid of trust. In a best case scenario these types of work relationships can lead to poor work environments that are not conducive to building cohesive teams necessary in Special Operations. Worst case scenario, this lack of trust could prove fatal depending on the mission and operational environment.
Worse than an egotistical leader is the overly emotional leader; whether the emotion is expressed through anger, or worse yet, nervous indecisiveness. Neither response is conducive to a productive work place and more so, it erodes the trust of both peers and those who work for you. Everyone has been a part of an organization that has the “hot head” that loses it when something isn’t performed the way he/she would have done it or when something doesn’t go according to plan. Screaming rarely changes anything; in fact, it stands in the way of understanding the circumstances behind the change or decision and developing alternatives that adapt and evolve in response to new realities. In short, emotions cloud our ability to make sound decisions based on reason and facts.
Emotional reactions may begin as small inconsequential outbursts, but before long, they transform into normal behavior and become contagious. Any modification of a plan, regardless of the reason, stimulates rage or complaints, which in turn discourages creativity and shared problem-solving in the unit. Neither quality is common among great leaders. Instead, the converse is often true: they are often found in toxic leaders. These outbursts often promote widespread complaining and an inability for the others in the organization to see the silver lining.
What did I do? Equally as important as reflecting on what you did wrong is reflecting on what you did right. Through persistent effort you will begin to see changes in your behaviors, reactions, and the ways that you lead individuals and teams. It starts with identifying instances where we can improve. As we reflect on what we did wrong, we can then identify what the appropriate way to handle the situation would have been. The next time a similar situation presents itself, we then know the solution and can act accordingly. As this occurs more and more, we have less poor things to reflect on and can reflect on what we did correctly. This reinforces these behaviors and overtime they become habitual.
What’s left undone? Although Epictetus wasn’t necessarily referring to these reflections from the perspective of leading others, this perspective doesn’t remove any of his original intent either. If you are in the business of leading, then you are in the business of people and influence – two components easily recognizable to civil affairs personnel. Yet in our own organizations we regularly ignore the principles we utilize to interact with and influence populations abroad. Daily self-reflection allows us to embrace habits that reinforce self-improvement, which ultimately make us better leaders. Where did I go wrong? What did I do right? And what duty’s left undone? Write your responses down in a journal or any other format and review them weekly. This constant reflection reinforces awareness of these faults and provides insights on how to correct for them. Over time this habit will improve your leadership abilities. Your team’s performance will soon follow suit.
Sean Acosta is a Civil Affairs Noncommissioned Officer that has experience leading soldiers and small teams in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Caribbean. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis from Norwich University. He can be found on Twitter @ Sean_A_Acosta.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.
[i] Donald Robertson. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2019), 105-106.
[ii] United States Special Operations Command. “United States Special Operations Command Comprehensive Review,” SOF News, January 29, 2020, https://sof.news/ussocom/ussocom-sof-culture-ethics-report-2020/. [iii] United States Army Chief of Staff, “Army Leadership,” Army Publication Directorate, July 2019, https://armypubs.army.mil/.