Book Review: “Radical Candor”

Author: Kim Scott

Direct feedback, no problem – right?

The military does feedback­­­—hardcore. Tasks have clear standards. Failure to meet the standards results in direct, swift feedback – written, verbal (perhaps this is too gentle a word), and physical. As a leader, I provided clear, objective feedback to my personnel and my unit.

Out of the military, I found my “direct” approach was not as well received (again, likely too gentle a word).  Additionally, I thought that everyone around me either gave no feedback or the feedback was trivial. ­ Transitioning from the military means interacting in a new, unfamiliar world. Without a feedback loop, I couldn’t tell how I was doing. The more uncertain I got, the more defensive I became — labeling people as “passive aggressive,” “super-introverted,” or “indecisive. ” I could not read them so I thought they were all wrong or just chickenshit. Then one day, I finally got some direct, candid feedback

It crushed me and it was exactly what I needed.

Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor,” fundamentally changed how I view feedback.  “Radical Candor” is written as a guide for managers, but the book spoke to both my need for feedback and the mistakes I was making when I gave it. Scott uses quadrants based on caring and directness to define approaches for delivering feedback.  Too direct – and you’re a jerk.  Too caring – and you are ineffective.

I was, what Kim Scott called, “obnoxious aggression” (aka jerk).

Scott argues that the most effective quadrant from which to give feedback is both direct and caring – which she calls “Radical Candor.” Be direct and specific with your feedback. Apply the same level of specificity to both the good things an employee does and areas where they aren’t cutting it. Make clear for your employee how they can improve.

Easy right? The tricky part comes with caring. Give feedback ONLY if you care about the growth and success of the other person.

When you care about another person, it doesn’t matter who is right and wrong. It’s not a contest for the best grades or the fastest times. Success is more than just winning – anyone can win. “Radical Candor” means defining success by growth.

When I framed feedback in terms of helping others grow, I fundamentally changed. I stopped competing with them and I started truly caring about the person. My ego and the desire to be right was replaced by my drive to help others overcome struggles and be better.

The funniest, most unexpected thing happened next ­— I got better at receiving feedback! Viewed through the lens of improvement rather than being right/wrong, I started to listen more closely to what a person was saying. I endeavored to really understand their assessment because I was myself on a relentless path to improve.

Slowly, my new world became a little less unfamiliar. I began to see hints of feedback all around me. The path was now defined by improvement and growth. I confidently stepped into the non-military world knowing that whatever it threw at me, and no matter my shortcomings, I would be just fine as long as I kept trying.

So bring on the feedback!

Veteran Voices: Behind the Generator

Part 1: No one goes behind the generator

The sound is deafening. It smells like JP8, exhaust, and dirt mixed into a toxic, sweltering cloud.  Usually, the ground is littered with an array of ancient plastic bottles, relics of some past water bottle contract. Generators are positioned in hard to reach corners of compounds and only barely accessible for refueling. They are usually semi-entombed in concrete barriers to protect them from mortars – which traps the tiny, noxious, atmosphere within protective walls.

No one goes behind the generators.

I went behind the generator. In the noisy, hot confusion, I found a quiet safety in which to fall totally and completely apart.

If the generator could talk, it would tell of great sadness. A sadness born in an unimaginable world that is unfair and cruel and ruthlessly selective. It would tell of frustration – trying to remember my mission despite feeling our objective was just recycled from a different theater or an older war. Knowing surely that I mattered to the people I served, but questioning some days if they even know I existed.  Feeling with every email or post, that the people I left behind were slowly leaving me. Watching my dreams get harder and harder to catch.

And fear. The bitter taste of true fear that comes when I saw how easy and final death really was.

The generator would also talk of strength. Of looking the fear, and death, and sadness squarely in the face – feeling every bit.  The generator would tell of the birth of courage, which came in the moment when the tears ran dry and sobbing stopped with a rattling gasp. In those eternal seconds, courage would be born. Birthed in the decision to continue on.

Behind the generator- the Soldier chooses to stand, wipe the tears and dust, sling the rifle, and simply go to chow.

The next day, the mission will call. And we will choose to go out again.

I learned to go behind the generator from a good friend. She too lived this life that was both so full of reality and yet so empty. She knew how the conflict of emotions after death, crashes, sandstorms, pointless missions, and nearly dying for some dumb ring route could rip at the core of person. One day, she told me to go behind the generator and feel it all. “No one goes behind the generator,” she said. The generator won’t talk. No one will ask questions. She said I would be okay.

She was right.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. Photo credit of those pristine, clean generators: US Army.

Veteran Voices: Series Introduction

Every Veteran has a story

We owe all veterans the right to tell their story – as they see it – without our judgement.

Delivering that story in their own unique voice can be the first, critical step to healing from the experiences of war. It is our solemn duty to listen. As citizens, we likely hold no individual fault in the prosecution or decision to go to war. But as a Nation, it is our responsibility to participate in recovering from it. In listening to these stories – as Veterans and citizens together – we can begin to heal and find peace.

The stories that follow are told directly by Veterans. This series consists of multi-part stories anchored by a single event that occurred on a single day. Yet this event played out long after that day. It was relived in the mind.  It was shared. Lessons learned were passed on over years and across continents to help other Veterans.

A single day and a single voice can have lasting impact. When we choose to listen, we choose healing. Here are their stories:

Book Review: “Lost Connections”

Author: Johann Hari

People not pills

Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.

As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.

Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”

And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.

Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.

Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.

Connect with others

“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.

So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.

Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.

Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.

I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.


Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.