Battling Irrelevance: What Shinseki Got Right That You Continue to Screw Up

Retired four star U.S. Army general Eric Shinseki is a hero. There isn't any other way to describe him. He is a second generation American (his grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima to Hawaii in 1901), born in Hawaii in 1942. Shinseki was highly educated, attending the US Military Academy and earning a Master of Arts degree from Duke. He held a multitude of postings in his 38 years of military service - their singular connection: success.

Shinseki earned TWO Purple Hearts, THREE Bronze Stars, multiple Distinguished Service Medals (from Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard), and the Army Commendation Medal, among others. Shinseki is the MJ, Pele, Tom (Brady, of course) and Ted (yes, Ted WIlliams) all in one. 

So yeah, we can all agree he's a hero. That's how you would describe him.

That's just part of the story. There's more - the former Army chief of staff lived and personified leadership. Collins would call him a Level 5 Leader. Covey would say that he is a leader that actively lived the 8th Habit. Kotter would call him the ultimate Change Agent. Blanchard would call him The Servant Leader.  Shinseki, though, in his incredible humility and grace, would probably prefer what my niece would call him before giving him a big hug, (in her adorable two year old lisp) "Mr. Shinthekee!" 

So, we're clear. He was humble, heroic and an incredible leader, but what does this have to do with me? With you? Shinseki was transformational and you can learn a lot more from him than you can your required HR Supervisor course. 

Rewind to 1999 when Shinseki became the Army's chief of staff. The Army was generally tired, rigid, immobile and ready to fight wars like they did in Vietnam and during Desert Storm - with a defined enemy in a defined location. Shinseki knew that a transformation was needed. We needed to be nimble, mobile, flexible and ready to strike quickly - something Shinseki referred to as the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. 

Saying he was met with resistance is like saying you're not looking forward to going to the DMV. #understatement

Since we are talking about the government and change - Shinseki was (predictably) called before Congress to defend his proposal. While being talked down to about his "outrageous" proposal, Shinseki, as cool and calm as ever, leaned forward in his chair and said something that had become his mantra during his time as chief of staff, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance a lot less."


What's your choice? Change or irrelevance? 

As we know now, Shinseki was right. We had to change our Army - the most powerful army in the history of the world - to maintain our relevance in a war that we had never seen with an enemy we had never encountered. Many would claim it was too late and resulted in unnecessary casualties, but that's not what I want to argue. I want to argue - no, implore you - that you need to transform your outlook. 

Why do you hate change so much? Isn't it better than irrelevance?  Yet you toil each and every day to keep things from changing. This isn't about Kodak or Blockbuster; this isn't some case study. This is your life!

You have the opportunity in every moment to go on the offensive, to battle irrelevance. Here's how you FLIP your life, your organization and your spouse (haha - yeah right - I'm not going there!) from didn't reach their potential to smiling when you look in the mirror:

   Fail. This makes all the self-proclaimed perfectionists - or anyone Type A - VERY uncomfortable. To be successful and reach a place that you've never allowed yourself to imagine, you must take chances - and taking chances means failing. Fail often, quickly and forward. Most people are taught that failure is a four letter word, but I would assert that as long as you aren't making the same "mistakes" twice, you are becoming a better you. 

   Listen. My mother is an incredibly wise woman, she has to be, she's a Nona. My mother always told me I had "two ears and one mouth" and that "hearing and listening are two different things..." While I still don't fully know what any of that means, I do know that building real relationships and surrounding yourself with a community of individuals that you will give you real feedback is critical. Stop having a bunch of fake "friends" and find yourself a Joey, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Monica and, most importantly, a Phoebe. Then, listen to what they say! And give them a hug after they say it.

   Improve. Improvement is all about practice. Remember what Gladwell said about deliberate practice for 10,000 hours? Fortunately for you this doesn't fall into that category. However, you can't just think, "Phoebe is right - I need to change" and then everything is magically going to be better. You must be intentional - you have to focus (which is hard since most of you are doing at least two other things as you read this). If you truly desire to change, you must invest your time and attention.   

   Perform. This is it - the payoff. You get to actually do what you've been practicing. Yes, actually doing it is the hard part, but it is, without a doubt, the best part. The reality is, you can't truly FLIP your life if you don't put it into action. You can't FLIP your organization if you don't execute. Now is the time to truly make the change, or, as Robin Williams would say, "Carpe Diem!

Churchill was famous for saying, "To improve is to change. To perfect is to change often." I'm sure Shinseki was a fan of that quote... Here's my question: Are you grinding towards marginal improvement or battling irrelevance everyday towards perfection?