It was my last summer in college, between my junior and senior years. I was at Reserve Officer Training Corps camp, and the mission for the day was the seizure of hilltop 473 by our squad. We anticipated enemy contact and had to navigate in the night by foot patrol over the Fort Ord densely wooded terrain and seize the objective by dawn. This mission was our culminating exercise in the month’s long training.
Our squad was motivated to succeed, and at 2000 hours, we started our quest. Whitey, a nickname for his surname White, armed with an M-60, was our machine gunner and rear guard, and my position was often lead scout. The rest of the 10-member patrol, strapped with M-16s, fell somewhere in between in the column formation. Our instructors constantly reminded us that complacency was the catalyst to defeat, so remain vigilant.
We had been humping for hours over hills and through a dense forest, and our squad leader decided to pause for a 20-minute break. After the break, we moved out and continued our march toward the objective. Around midnight we arrived and started our pre-assault actions. Our patrol leader called Whitey to the front with the intent of maneuvering the M-60 in the most advantageous position. However, there was no Whitey. We did an about-face and started to backtrack our steps in pursuit of Whitey, our lost machine gunner.
An hour later, we were back at our 20-minute break location, and Whitey’s snoring was the locator beacon to his whereabouts. As part of our training, the active-duty cadre purposely sleep-deprived us, and Whitey felt its effects. We failed in our mission, and our squad was recycled and had to perform it again. Complacency led to our defeat, and forever more, I’ve recalled the lesson to remain ever vigilant when leading teams.
Complacency abounds in our society as it does in many companies. You see it at the federal, state and local levels in all institutions: public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, and religious and educational. Marriages, friendships and professional associations also experience its effect. Complacency’s ugly head is recognizable by teams’ group thinking, accepting the status quo, battling change, lacking involvement, struggling engagement, evading responsibility, avoiding accountability, resisting commitment, doing the least to get by, and being unresponsive. When complacency exists within a team, defeat is right around the corner.
Complacency means satisfaction with oneself and the absence of a desire to grow. Synonyms are conceit, egotism, arrogance, pridefulness and self-importance. If you’re a leader projecting complacency, your team will mirror your behavior. The organizational culture will perpetuate minimalism… doing the least necessary to get by. Organizational structure, standards and accountability are lacking or nonexistent. Stakeholders question the organization’s impact and relevance. Soon the organization perishes unless there is a change at the top. Team cohesion melts — stagnation sets in and employee turnover skyrockets.
Vigilance, on the other hand, means being alertly watchful, mainly to avoid danger. Colloquially, your head is in the game. Synonyms are attentive, awake, observant and open-eyed. Organizations that thrive have vigilant leaders who are alert for and drive out complacency. They inspire team members, ego aside, to engage and communicate vertically and laterally, inside and outside the organization, who are bound to standards and accountable for their actions. Imagine your organization’s productivity and output if you had vigilant leadership at its helm. Inspired team members seek ways to contribute all their effort to accomplish the mission and remain loyal and engaged in achieving the vision. They mirror their leaders’ behaviors.
Vigilance is self-discipline. It’s not passive. You must be situationally aware and require your conscious actions to habituate and maintain. Little things like being on time, responsive, engaging and thoughtful, and bigger things like observing your surroundings, purposeful decision-making, establishing standards and holding people accountable are components of this discipline. And like any discipline, it can be taught and reinforced by adjoining team members. When your head isn’t in the game, a teammate rattles it and reorients you. Flourishing organizational cultures are vigilant!
My squad, humping through the Fort Ord hills, wasn’t vigilant. We were complacent. We lacked self-awareness, and the darkness, our fatigue and our relaxation of standards led to our failure. Our instructors taught us to pass the count from rear to front every few minutes so leaders know their squad is intact. This count was a standard. We didn’t. We would have discovered Whitey was taking a nap and not in the formation! If you lead a company, and you or some of your employees are taking a nap, then you can be assured complacency is present.
Vigilance preserves the company’s integrity, starting with you, the leader. Followers mimic your behaviors and drive complacency out of the organization. This is how you lead, think, plan and act. Now, let’s get after it!
Col. Paul A. Raggio (Ret.) is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North Executive Development, a service-disabled, veteran-owned, family-operated firm in Santa Clarita. He is a fractional CEO and develops C-Suite executives, business owners and their employees on leadership and management principles. His email address is [email protected].