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Team Results USA’s CEO John Kolm is an innovator of 21st century team productivity programs, a best-selling author, and a former intelligence officer. Originally from Australia, John formed Team Results in 1996 with retired business partner and decorated veteran Peter Ring as the end result of an experiment that began... Read more

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Why the VA Will Never Get It

30

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

 

We all know that the VA is in trouble for gaming the system to hide long wait times for medical care while – in some cases – veterans may have died. Meanwhile, some people who gamed the system received performance bonuses.

Outgoing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in his 30 May resignation speech that “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed”. He’s right. And yet a senior bureaucrat in the VA responded to this call to leadership with a 17-point plan, included in the Inspector-General’s report, to fix the problem by creating a raft of new administrative procedures.

Why?

There’s a fundamental disconnect between the values of the military and the values of the VA. In the military, integrity is expected; it’s like turning on a faucet. In the VA, integrity is negotiable. Definitions of integrity vary outside the military, and in many cases, personal survival is directly threatened by other pressures – reputation, getting along, security, promotion – which become much more important. What defeated Shinseki, a distinguished soldier and leader, is that on entering the VA he simply assumed that integrity was a given and a core value. Too late, he found out that he was building on sand.

When values are so far apart, language loses its meaning. Shinseki may as well have been speaking in Kurdish. His audience, on the other side of the yawning gulf in values, simply did not understand him. Like Wittgenstein’s lion, our worlds are so far apart that a common language doesn’t help.

Military leaders are taught that people matter more than systems, and that leadership sets behaviors in an organization. The cost of failure is high, but there are also rewards for success, and risk is not seen as an automatically bad thing. In government environments like the VA, risk is never good. The penalties for failure are much bigger than the rewards for success, so leadership is seen as a bad choice. Rules and regulations diffuse responsibility, require no personal commitment, and transfer problems into the safe domain of the intellect. They suit the VA environment much better than leadership values based on the doubtful and risky principle of integrity. Rule-following minimizes conflict; integrity has conflict built in.

Changing values is tough. It’s slow, expensive, and can’t be done online. It requires courage and skin in the game, and can come at a personal cost. Many people in the VA see values-based leadership as silly, unrealistic and naïve. And yet military leaders know that values are the only way to keep organizations from capsizing and becoming a liability the moment people are left to operate on their own.

But as long as we persist in shouting incomprehensible instructions in unknown languages across the great, yawning gap of leadership values, even the best lion is going to stay in the wilderness.

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John Kolm

About John Kolm

Team Results USA’s CEO John Kolm is an innovator of 21st century team productivity programs, a best-selling author, and a former intelligence officer.

Originally from Australia, John formed Team Results in 1996 with retired business partner and decorated veteran Peter Ring as the end result of an experiment that began in 1993. Driven by frustration with the team development options then available to business and government, and with encouragement from early clients, they applied their academic training and practical leadership experience to build the unique approach to team productivity improvement that eventually became Team Results. The company grew rapidly, expanded to a wholly US-owned branch in the United States in 2005, and now operates as a very successful business in both hemispheres.

In 2004 John and Peter wrote the global bestseller “Crocodile Charlie and the Holy Grail” (Penguin, available on Amazon.com), consolidating ten years of work with peak clients into a compelling story about team productivity, leadership in business and government, and happiness at work. The book has been re-published in seven languages and fourteen countries, and a sequel is in the works. John is also the author of numerous articles and papers on team dynamics in the modern workplace, some of which can be found in the News Room at www.teamresultsusa.com .

John is qualified in Psychology from the University of Melbourne, and in mathematics and statistics from the U.S. National Cryptologic School, where he also taught on the faculty. Email him at John.kolm@teamresultsusa.com .

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