Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is one of the most famous books and movies from the second half of the 20th century. While it may  not seem apparent on first blush, it has several lessons for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) to learn going forward. In an article in Doc Daneeka’s Tent, entitled “Readings from Catch 22: Staff Lessons, Part One”, there were several which focused on the seeming insanity of the book.

Lesson 1: Beware the Snowball Impact of Seemingly Innocuous Statements

This lesson focused on a simple phone conversation which culminates in a circular loop of General Officer prank calls, but the primary lesson is found in a single sentence: Communications answered that T.S. Eliot was not a new code or the colors of the day.” As the author noted, “Your rank or position and the echelon at which you serve can all contribute to the impact that an offhand comment or inaccurate statement can have. In a hierarchical organization like the military the tendency is to treat information from higher as true unless proven otherwise. As a staff officer you owe the organizations and leaders below you the due diligence of verifying the information you disseminate. Incomplete truths can be as, if not more damaging than false statements. The higher in the food chain you are the smaller the statement or error needs to be for significant consequences to occur.”

Lesson 2: Find Your Subject Matter Expert        

Another early lesson for the senior staff was to find a subject matter expert (SME). In this case it was a Private, PFC Wintergreen, an expert on ice cream. The author noted, “Within your staffs there will be multiple Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreens at each echelon. Take the time early on in your assignment to develop these relationships, and you will save yourself potential hours of frustration in the future. To be clear – I am not making an argument for circumventing the chain of command or trying to start a discussion on formal vs. informal power structures. Rather, a good staff officer knows who they can rely on for accurate information when they absolutely need it and need it now. This Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen could come in the form of a subject matter expert, or another staff officer positioned closer to the center of the information flow.”

Lesson 3: Be Professional

We have all been in situations where a more senior leader did not like us personally or did not fully appreciate our talents. However, “when you are in the situation of working on a staff directly for someone who dislikes everything about you personally. There are no quick and easy solutions. Hope is not a course of action, but hopefully that superior is able to separate the personal and the professional and you should make every effort to as well. This is a topic on which entire books can be published and I am only dedicating a paragraph. In the event they tend to discard every issue or idea you bring to them, a method for moving your ideas forward in the organization is to have a peer bring them to your boss’s attention. Of course, you will not get the credit you deserve, but if you are strongly committed to advancing something you believe in then the indirect approach via a third party may very well be the only effective option.”

Lesson 4: Keep Your Perspective

The author ended with the following, “I think an important lesson from the entirety of Catch-22 is not to lose your sense of humor and perspective. There will come a point on any staff you are a part of where you will find yourself in the middle of carrying out a task you find to be completely absurd, the people around you find absurd, and more than likely the individual who directed it finds it absurd as well. However, you will all continue to carry out the task. There is a difference between laughing at the situation and complaining about it. Complete the task, and make a note to see if there is a better alternative path to take in the future. Then go home, cross out the name of a character in Catch-22, replace it with the name of an individual in your organization who fits the profile, and take pleasure in how the story reads just as well the second me.”

Steve Wood, writing in his Steve on Leadership blog, in a post entitled “So Much Older Then, Younger Now,  took a difference focus by looking at the lessons through the lens of leadership paradoxes. There will certainly resonate with a CCO. He posed some “common paradoxes leaders face”:

  1. I want to trust what my team does and I need to verify what they do.
  2. I want to inspire my team with my charisma and be humble.
  3. I want to use consensus and be decisive so the team has confidence in me.
  4. I want to be liked as a friend by my team and keep my distance so I can provide constructive feedback.
  5. I want to effectively manage my time and be flexible to listen to the needs of my team.
  6. I want to directly communicate areas that need improvement with my team members and be diplomatic so as not to hurt their feelings.

Wood recommends you resolve such paradoxes by writing them down and then begin to work through them with your team, stating, “I suggest leaders engage appropriate team members in discussions about the paradox. The leader’s job is to think about and write questions that help teams solve the paradox. The goal is to arrive at solutions that satisfy both ends of the “and” or “but” statement. Unfortunately, leaders don’t often prepare properly for these discussions and, as a result, develop strategies that only satisfy one half of the paradox.”

Catch-22 provides some interesting, if non-obvious leadership questions and lessons. My suggestion is you watch the movie or better yet read the book and enjoy all the contradictions. You will be entertained.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017