A sensemaking story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 16, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

Here’s an interesting story Bob Sutton recently received from a US Marine in relation to his excellent book, The No Asshole Rule. It’s a terrific sensemaking story because I can imagine people will have strong opinions about what the Marine did and so the story will easily start a conversation that will help the participants better understand how they might act if they ever encountered such an asshole.

I’m reminded of a story of my own which I’d like to share with you. I was part of a special project for the Marine Corps. I was in a leadership role actively playing a part in the physical military operations and the academic/management part ruled by civilian contractors. Because of my education, I was tasked to play a liaison role which often meant bearing ill will from both parties as I tried to explain their intentions to the others. Right off the bat, a member of the civilian management team rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t sure what it was until he severely berated one of my senior Marines, telling him at one point that “we had all taken a oath to defend this Nation.” I was offended by that. I knew for a fact he took no such oath. But more importantly, I believed that he was acting in a manner in which he thought was consistent with military leadership– an assumption he developed from watching too many movies.

I held my tongue at the moment but that evening during our After Action Review, I brought the issue up. We were seated across from each other at a conference table. As soon as I aired my complaints, he puffed up in his chair, put both hands on the table and started looking at me menacingly. He was a large man– about six and a half feet and easily 250 pounds. At that moment, I realized that he was trying to physically intimidate me. I’m much smaller– about 5’10“ and 190 pounds. I could tell that this was a natural reaction to him and he did this often. For a moment I was amused. When he continued to glare at me, I finally drew my sidearm, placed it on the table and said to him, ”Calm down. I deal in real violence.“ He settled down and walked out of the office a couple of minutes later. I hoped that this encounter would shift his behavior but it didn’t. He was a senior member of the team and he started treating everybody else worse. Me– he mostly left alone. I think I made my life better but I sure didn’t do anything to make my teammates lives easier. Eventually, the most senior member of the civilian team removed him but not before I threatened to ”accidentally“ hurt him in training. I’m not proud I had to resort to that.

This was my first contact with the civilian management world and I was not impressed. Unfortunately, my experiences after haven’t been much better. We certainly have our share of lousy leaders in the military world but I was surprised to see how much backstabbing and political in-fighting existed in civilian leadership circle.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “A sensemaking story”

  1. Jerome Alexander Says:

    I take a different approach to the subject. On my blog “The Corporate Cynic” I concentrate on stories that showcase the “dark side” of corporations and bad leaders. These are real stories from my own thirty years in management. I believe that real events as retold by those that experienced them have a much greater impact on the reader. Each story has a moral. The point of the blog is this: If you want to run a good company or be a good leader, DON’T do what these companies and leaders do.

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