Acknowledge and Ignore
Dealing with Poor Leaders
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is one more on leadership but this time pivots to one of the most effective followership tactics I’ve ever heard and struggle to do. It’s a simple mantra that allows you to gain the good graces of almost any leader while, at the same time, allowing you to do what you planned on anyway.
Years ago I was expressing my frustration about a leader and the fact that 90% of what they asked to be done was off the cuff, ill-defined, and typically solving the wrong problem to begin with. One junior member of the team agreed with my assessment and then dropped this golden nugget of wisdom:
“Yeah, I get those requests all the time. I just acknowlege, say yes, and ignore him.”
“Yeah, if he asks a second time I do the same thing.”
“By the time he asks the third time the task is completely different from what he started with, he often appologizes for being unclear at the beginning, and then asks me how I think it should be done.”
I stood agog not sure what to do with this incredible brilliance. I’d been banging my head against the wall for months desperately trying to help this leader be successful; trying to be the strong senior analyst who got stuff done efficiently and answer the wicked problems we were being presented with. Then this kid drops wisdom gold like this and, for the love of all things holy, I couldn’t discredit it.
I graduated college and, minutes before accepting my degree, I raised my right hand and was commissioned into the United States Army as a Field Artillery Officer. This was after four years of immersive leadership training in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. (ROTC)
From there I attended the Officer Basic Course for Field Artillery, one of the most difficult academic programs I ever participated in. Here we learned to plan cannon, rocket, and missile fires into the deep fight and coordinated aviation assets like helicopters and airplanes. We also trained in how to solve complex fire missions to accurately bring those fires to bear (hint, you have to adjust for both the curvature and rotation of the earth) and how to lead the batteries of artillery and rockets that provide those fires. This training exemplified the ability to look at complex problems, find solutions, design in adaptability, and make timely decisions in the face of incomplete data.
I then went through the Airborne and Ranger schools where I learned how to jump out of airplanes (easy) and how to lead under the most extreme stressors and pressure (not easy). Ranger School, more than anything thus far, highlighted the need to make intelligent decisions even when you’ve only gotten three hours of sleep in three days, you haven’t eaten in a day, you just finished a ten-mile movement on foot carrying over 100 pounds of gear, it’s the middle of the night, and it’s raining… no worse, it’s freezing rain.
Let’s just say that the idea that you’d just ignore a leader or that a leader would tolerate being ignored was an anathema to my training and experience.
On reflection, I shouldn’t be so taken aback by this. In fact, the Rangers have a mantra we’ve introduced here before:
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Just like how I shouldn’t return fire until I know where the enemy is and can determine if they are trying to bait me out…
Just like how I shouldn’t rush onto an objective industriously without leveraging all my assets…
Just like the concept of Wu Wei and tactical patience achieves battlefield success…
Why do I have such a hard time applying that to my leaders?
Clearly, speaking up, bringing forth analysis, and attempting to get the problem defined right from the start wasn’t working well. I was also missing a key fact: this particular leader, and many others I’ve known just want a “Roger Sir!” acknowledgment and are oddly OK with being ignored. I was doing it wrong.
That last sentence says it all. Some leaders aren’t open to feedback and they are OK with being ignored. It’s not a position I appreciate being in either as a leader or follower, it’s not a leader I’m likely to have any respect for, but it is an incredibly valuable insight that aligns with a lot of the leadership topics we’ve covered thus far.
What makes this hard is that I feel it has to be coupled with a lack of respect for the leader. This is one of the toughest pills for me to swallow personally. Not to say there isn’t a litany of historical examples of working with poor leadership as captured in books like “The 48 Laws of Power” or more current pop culture “How to Work for an Idiot.” Both books contain great insights into methods, similar to Acknowledge and Ignore, that work…
But for me, this crosses a line on manipulation. It might make me successful but I can’t help but feel like I’m manipulating these people and to do that, I can’t respect the person. I have a very hard time crossing that line in general.
Yet, in the end, this advice got a better result faster by literally ignoring the action requested. How’s that for a counterintuitive leadership insight? I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around it. That’s likely because I expect from others what I expect from myself. However, success in followership is all about finding hidden gems and not assuming your leaders are thinking like you at all.
What’s an example you have of a leadership insight that worked but didn’t align with the way you think about the problems? Leave a comment below!
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