Fake It ’til you Become It

amy-cuddyI just watched a fantastic TED Talk by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, where she effectively distills the finest nuances of Naval Leadership to a trite six-word phrase. If you’ve got twenty minutes to spare, I highly recommend you stop reading my drivel and go watch the video. If you don’t, I’ll try to summarize below, but seriously go watch the video.

She begins with an eye roll-inducing discussion of dominant/submissive body language and its prevalence in the workplace dynamic. It gets more interesting when she goes on to describe an experiment which determined that one’s body language noticeably affects their hormone levels, even when the body language is artificially impelled (subjects directed to stand around in “power poses” just prior to job interviews performed markedly better, and showed increased levels of testosterone afterward). She concludes with a personal anecdote that brilliantly illustrates the principle for which this post is titled, “Fake it ’til you become it”.

When my journey as an officer at sea began, I frequently felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the ship and my responsibilities to her. I became convinced that I had somehow found myself in world for which I was poorly suited, and that I was just getting by through an elaborate deception. I had no idea how long I could keep “faking it,” but held out hope that I might eventually come to understand enough to consider myself at least a marginally worthy watch officer.

As I progressed, something completely different happened. Rather than develop the experience to feel worthy of my post, I developed the experience to see just how unworthy everyone else was of theirs. This is to say nothing negative of my shipmates; I remain convinced that I served with the most brilliant and talented operators in the history of naval warfare. Rather, it is to say that the nature of the job is such that no human is capable of fully understanding all aspects of it, nor legitimately worthy of the responsibility it confers.

We are what we pretend to be… so we must be careful what we pretend to be. -Kurt Vonnegut

So are we all just sailing around blind and dumb, fumbling our way through the incredibly complex operations we execute every day? Not at all. Note that I indicated that no single human is capable of understanding everything that’s going on (but we sure do try). Give a ship to a crew of highly-trained, well-organized humans, however, and magic happens. This magic is precisely why your position exists.

Being a naval officer is an exercise in theater. As an Ensign, you’re dumped into a ridiculously unfamiliar situation and told, “go take charge.” You think this is some silly rite-of-passage, but you fake it and somehow get through it. Then it happens again. And again. And sooner or later, you get pretty good at taking charge in ridiculously unfamiliar situations.

Everyone knows you’re faking it

Here’s the dirty secret: Everyone in the room knows you’re faking it. They know it, you know it, so why are we even playing this silly game? Order. Every member of the crew silently desires it, because they know that chaos and confusion will make life more difficult. When you’re standing in front of your first division with freshly unpackaged butter bars, they are not hoping that you will confess your ignorance and abdicate all authority to the chief. They are simply hoping that you will be fair, undramatic, organized, and open to learning– and if they’re really lucky, maybe you’ll stand up for their interests as well.

Does all this mean that knowledge is of little value? Certainly not. Acknowledging that you’ll never know it all, you have to make every human effort to learn everything you can, particularly the details associated with your job. It is the knowledge of these details that increases your value beyond that of a mere role-player to a competent subject matter expert.

Don’t ever lose your respect for the complexity of the ship, though. The moment you feel like you aren’t faking it anymore, that you truly are in control of everything going on around you… that is the moment in which you have lost perspective. It’s called overconfidence, and it is very dangerous.

5 thoughts on “Fake It ’til you Become It

  1. Love this post. As a former JO in the world’s finest Navy, I can appreciate and relate to the perspective. Now as a civilian, it is just as applicable to difficulties being faced by my team now. Just… outstanding. Keep it up, I’ll be reading.

  2. Well written. You hit the nail on the head. Perhaps one missing piece is that your chief or first class is supposed to take you under his or her wing and show you the ropes. Too often they are content to let their ensign flail and do the administrative functions, when they should be helping you learn both leadership and administration. Hold them accountable, and you’ll be well on your way.

  3. When I reported for duty with NATO Training Mission Afghanistan as an OIC for a group of advisors, I felt more than a little bit out of my element. My training as a naval officer had not fully prepared me to take charge of a group of contractors, government civilians and assorted coalition military, plan and conduct ground movements through the battle space and effectively persuade, cajole and educate our Afghan partners.

    An experience in the first few weeks of my tour left me feeling overwhelmed and severely lacking confidence in myself. In one of my worst moments, I allowed it to show and began to express my own feelings of inadequacy.

    Realizing the extent to which I was about to undermine myself as a leader and my positional authority, an Air Force O-4 who had been on the ground for five months already quickly pulled me aside and gave me much the same advice: “Fake it till you become it.” Major also reminded me that people were depending on me and that I should compose myself and carry on with the mission at hand. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how he delivered the message, but in a matter of a few minutes, I knew he was right. Later, once my bruised ego had healed a bit, I knew his delivery was spot on as well.

    As an officer, you won’t always have the answers. That is not your job anyway. Your job is to form your people into the most effective team possible in order to accomplish your assigned mission. Help ensure that your people get the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. Learn as much as you can about what they do. Listen to them and understand their concerns and motivations. Help them maintain perspective when things go wrong and praise them for a job well done. Give them clear tasking and set clear expectations and, when you don’t receive the same from your leadership, go back and get it! Above all, inform yourself of the facts and make the hard decisions that need to be made in a timely fashion. Accept the consequences either way and defend your people always. That’s your job.

  4. Pingback: Your First Division | JO Rules

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