The military is made up of all sorts of people. The good, the bad, and the ugly all find their ways into uniforms, and although much of the training service members undergo is intended to improve upon our abilities to lead, some aspects of good leadership are innate and unlearnable. Some men and women just have it, and no matter how many PowerPoint presentations you show some others, they’ll simply never truly appreciate the unique cocktail of important traits required to build the sort of leader Marines, Soldiers, Sailors or Airmen want to follow into hell.
While there’s real value to systemic leadership education, and it genuinely can develop competent leaders or managers, the problem with the methodology so often employed in the military is a reliance on the system rather than the intent of the education. Marines are taught to adapt and overcome, unless there’s a test involved — in which case, you’d better be prepared to simply regurgitate whatever was taught to you verbatim. Class passed, credentials certified, and a leader is born.
Good leaders, of course, adopt aspects of these classes and incorporate them into their existing suite of interpersonal skills. Bad leaders, on the other hand, follow the prescribed lesson plan regardless of effect, and then blame their subordinates, rather than the strategy, for its failure.
Years ago, I had this concept explained to me through the tale of a group of monkeys, a step ladder, and a bushel of bananas:
Three monkeys were placed in a cage with nothing but a step ladder in the middle of the floor with a bushel of bananas hanging above it. The monkeys, being monkeys, immediately closed with the ladder, but as soon as the first paw hit the bottom rung, the zookeeper sprayed all three monkeys with a powerful fire hose. When the spraying stopped, the monkeys looked at each other, and being monkeys, immediately headed for the ladder, and the bananas, once again.
Another spray from the hose seemed to confirm it: those bananas simply weren’t coming down. One of the three monkeys, however, still felt like he might be able to beat the hose, and without the other two in tow, he made one last break for the ladder. Before he could grip a rung, however, the hose started up again — spraying all three, despite only one making an attempt.
Those three monkeys remained in the enclosure overnight, not once approaching the ladder again. In the morning, the zookeeper opened the cage door, took one of the three monkeys by the hand and led him out, returning a few minutes later with a different monkey. The new monkey entered the cage, looked at his two cellmates, then the bananas, and immediately made a break for the ladder. As he did, the zookeeper reached for the hose, but the other two monkeys, aware that they’d be sprayed for his attempt too, tackled the new monkey and wouldn’t let him anywhere near the ladder or the bananas. After repeating the attempt a half dozen times, the new monkey came to understand that monkeys aren’t allowed on the ladder, despite never being sprayed himself.
The next day, another of the original monkeys was led out of the cage, and another new monkey was introduced. Just as before, the new monkey made a break for the ladder and was stopped by the other two, this time comprised of one of the original monkeys, and the one that learned the same lesson the day prior. Another half dozen attempts later, the new monkey understood: the ladder, and the bananas, were off-limits.
The following morning, the zookeeper repeated the process again, this time leading out the last of the monkeys to be sprayed by a hose days earlier, and replacing him with a new monkey. The new monkey, again, tried for the ladder but was stopped by the two that had already learned to avoid it. A half dozen attempts later, all three monkeys understood that the ladder, and the bananas, were not for them.
The thing is, none of those monkeys knew why. The last monkey to even see the fire hose was gone, and the three monkeys now avoiding the ladder simply did so because, well, that’s how it’s always been done.
Now, if the threat of the fire hose persists, it’s a good lesson to maintain, but without any knowledge of what threat they’re avoiding, the zookeeper and the fire hose may be long gone, but the monkeys will keep on going hungry.
Good leadership is about equipping your troops, your employees, even your family for success, not about blind enforcement of norms. Leaders may not always be in the position to disclose all elements of a mission, but we should always strive to avoid what I came to call “circus monkey syndrome.” Prepare your team to fight without you, and before you know it, they’ll be ready and willing to fight alongside you.
This article was written by Alex Hollings and originally published in 2019.