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Welcome to the first entry in the “JJ DID TIE BUCKLE” series, where we apply military leadership traits to challenges in an eye care setting. Our first topic is Justice, a simple enough concept but one that is often difficult and complex in practice.

As a leader, your sense of fairness is important because it underscores many of your decisions, or at least your subordinates’ interpretation of them. Within the military, if a leader plays favorites and always assigns the easier jobs to one platoon, or routinely gives special treatment to one individual, then resentment rapidly festers among the ranks. Soon every command given by the unjust leader will be viewed through an alternative lens by the rank-and-file troops as they wonder if there is some ulterior motive. Such thinking undermines a fighting unit, and it will do the same to your eye care team.

Naturally, it would be easy for me to tell you to be just simply by being perfectly fair in all situations, right? Sounds easy enough—done and done. And that is the goal, of course, but how you get there takes some effort and guidance. Here the military offers several parallels for how you, as a leader, can set the tone for a workplace environment where justice is the norm, where a sense of fairness is shared by all.

The first example involves the concept of fraternization. And I’m not talking about “fraternizing with the enemy,” but rather fraternization within your own team. The Navy and the Marine Corps define fraternization as an “unduly familiar relationship” that does not respect difference in rank, such as between an officer and an enlisted member, and thereby “undermines the respect for authority.” This means that, as an officer, I couldn’t date an enlisted sailor. I can’t invite a sailor over to my house to play cards with my buddies. And I can’t ask that sailor to fix my car as a favor because I know he’s a good mechanic who enjoys working on cars as a hobby.

Why not? Because when it comes time to hand out performance evaluations, how would the other sailors feel if I give my card-playing mechanic buddy the number one ranking? Or, more critically, in a combat setting where lives are at risk, how could our outside relationship interfere if I am giving time-sensitive orders? Let’s say that sailor disagrees with my decision, and, feeling empowered by our personal relationship, argues with me about the order? And while we’re arguing in front of the whole team the enemy slips into position to launch a grenade that destroys us all. The armed forces train to instill unflinching obedience precisely to prevent this sort of outcome.

Hopefully, as a leader of eye care professionals, you will never face a situation quite so tense as that described above. But what are the serious leadership decisions you have to make? Firing an employee comes to mind. Pay raises and bonuses are always sensitive topics. The daily workflow, the assignment of tasks within the office, the long-term responsibilities of each team member for practice growth: these are all situations where your sense of justice is tested.

But, by understanding the pitfalls of fraternization, you can create a work environment better suited to handle those scenarios. As a leader, you must set boundaries to avoid creating unduly familiar relationships. Besides obvious ones, like “No romantic relationships with the staff,” ask yourself: are you Facebook friends with some of your staff but not others (even if the others are excluded because they “don’t do Facebook”)? Do you socialize with only some staff members outside of work, even in a harmless setting like a church group or a softball team? Do you text regularly with some staff members about non-work related topics? If so, how do you think those outside-work relationships are perceived by everyone else? All of the above examples may be commonplace in most practices, but these seemingly innocuous relationships can create tension.

For instance, let’s say you side with your Optician, James, during a staff meeting, but James also happens to be the guy you recruited for your rec league basketball team. And every Monday morning in the office you two swap stories about how the game went over the weekend. So when you take his side during the meeting, do you see how everyone else could perceive this as a sort of injustice, however slight? And do you foresee the problem when James is under-performing down the road and deserves to be fired?

At this point, you might think that being a leader is no fun if you can’t be friends with the people who work with you. To some degree, you’re right: being in-charge means that you can’t enjoy quite the same camaraderie as the rank-and-file staff. That’s the burden of leadership. But you can still have a professional, personable, and respectful relationship with your staff. In the end, maintaining some personal space as a leader is healthy. Doing so fosters a climate of justness where everyone feels treated fairly, and that’s the best environment for your team’s long-term success.

In our next segment, we will continue talking about Justice by discussing how the military’s rise-up-the-ranks system creates a culture where fairness (ideally) prevails. As a preview, ask yourself: do you know all the ins-and-outs, all the nitty-gritty details, of every job position within your office?

Jonathan Jacesko
Lieutenant Jonathan Jacesko is the Optometrist at Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut. After graduating from the U. S. Naval Academy in 2003, he served for 10 years on active duty as a Naval Flight Officer. He was a Mission Commander/Tactical Coordinator in P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft before enrolling in optometry school in 2013. His military decorations include the Strike/Flight Air Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal, among other individual and unit awards. By writing this series he does not make any inherent claim to be a great or even a good leader himself, but he does try to get better every day.

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