It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
― Harry Truman
I’ve always liked the quote above for what should be obvious reasons. It’s sound advice from a man who had to make some incredibly difficult choices while in office. He didn’t back away from those choices as evidenced by his desk accouterment adorned with the saying “The Buck Stops Here.” Having been raised in a hard-working, middle class home like my coauthors, Truman’s lack of concern for attention and stoic stance on his own personal accountability reflected the values I learned from actions, not lectures. Those actions were performed by my dad, his brothers, my grandfathers, their friends and coworkers in the factories and in the fields. Nobody beat their chest saying, “Look at me.” or “look what I did.” They let the product of their sweat and toil do the speaking for them in the form of crop production, output from the assembly lines or quickly and properly maintaining the lines or equipment so production wasn’t hindered.
I like to think I carried on that character trait in school through my academic production…at least through my early years and then again after I joined the military. (We won’t delve into the unproductive adolescent years when I thought I was being cool and manly but really just wasted opportunities due to a cocky attitude and lack of focus…but I digress…squirrel!) That character trait pushed me to finish all my courses at or near the top of my class, not for recognition but for the right to stand tall knowing I’d done my best. That characteristic continued through my first assignment in the military because performance was based on production just like in the factory or the field. But then something changed. After studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey with my coauthors, we all went off to DC to start working our arms control activities. It was here where I first encountered the concept of getting credit and it came from an unlikely source.
My third team chief pulled me aside one day and said, “You know you need to learn to write about yourself better. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to differentiate yourself from the other interpreters.” I understood what he was saying, but had no idea how or why to take his advice. Because I had discussed some significant career objectives with him, he took me under his wing and guided me through this evolution from Truman-like humility to Hemingway-like written boasting that proved to be the difference in achieving those career objectives. It’s one of the few things I truly dislike about working in and around the government. What should be a profession of service to others, by programmatic decision, requires servants to morph into self-serving authors at least annually. You simply can’t get ahead if you can’t sell yourself in white collar jobs because tangible production differs significantly from blue collar work. I’ve had to become a model of my team chief and help my subordinates learn to “write like your dad is bragging about you” and help them get over the discomfort of doing so. In the end though, it’s your motivation for doing so that counts. I only help those who are interested in moving up to help others. Someone has to be in charge and keep moving up the leadership pyramid; it ought to be someone who leads like Truman and writes like Hemingway.