Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sharp Solutions

Thousands of men and women from the college class of 2010 are embarking this summer on a career as commissioned officers in the United States military. To this new generation of patriots the Colonel renders a respectful salute and offers some advice by way of a few anecdotal recollections.

Great piece of advice not found in any leadership manual, Number 1: The most elegantly simple solutions to the most pressing problems are most often resident in the brain housing groups of the most junior members of your team.

The Colonel wishes he had a dollar for every time he was personally involved in an episode that reminded him of this maxim. Here’s two of the most memorable:

More years ago than he would like to admit, the Colonel had the great fortune to be in command of the best rifle company in the Marine Corps. The Colonel (then the Captain) and his lieutenants were wrestling with the problem of how to move vehicles off of runways it was our company’s mission to secure. We had hot wire kits made up to start vehicles, but figured that we would need some way to get into a locked car or truck. We decided we would need to add slim jims, the tool police use to unlock vehicles, to our kits but couldn't figure out where to get them. When we finally asked our Marines if any of them knew where we could find a tool that would open a locked car, one lance corporal in the last rank raised his hand and volunteered, “Why don’t you just break the (expletive deleted) window?”

Six Marine officers removed their head gear and slapped their foreheads in unison.

A few years later, the Colonel had the great fortune to be in command of the best recruiting station in the Marine Corps. The Colonel (then the Major) and his lieutenants were wrestling with the problem of how to move the contracting and shipping status board from the old headquarters in Macon to the new headquarters in Atlanta, without losing the critical information tracked thereon. The status board (this was in the days just shortly after the invention of electricity) was a wall-sized magnetic board with twenty or so columns and just as many rows. The Colonel’s grasp of math ain't too good and he couldn't tell you exactly how many boxes that formed—in each of which a magnetic number resided—but it was, to use the technical term, a bunch. The Colonel (then the Major) and his lieutenants had decided to cover the board in plastic wrap and were measuring the board to see how big of a U-haul truck was needed to transport it, when the young sergeant, whose job it was to maintain the board and who had been quietly and respectfully observing his brainy leadership at work, reached into his desk, pulled out a Polaroid camera and snapped a picture of the board. While the Colonel (then the Major) and his lieutenants watched, the Marine waited patiently for the film to develop, looked carefully at it when it did, then pitched it onto his desk and proceeded to take the numbers off the board. The Colonel (then the Major) and his lieutenants edged over to the young sergeant’s desk, took a quick look at the clear picture of the status board, and went elsewhere.

Great piece of advice not found in any leadership manual, Number 2:
Somebody on your team is always carrying a big enough knife for any job.

When the Colonel (then the Lieutenant) completed his initial infantry officer training and was enroute to his first operational assignment, he stopped at a sporting goods store and bought a large sheath knife. When he says large, the Colonel really means enormous. Jim Bowie would have been, not just merely envious, but apoplectic with inferiority. Crocodile Dundee would have remarked favorably on it.

The knife was so large that the steel in its blade represented an entire day's worth of production at a mill in Pittsburgh.

The hides of six cows, and a half-grown calf, were required to provide enough leather from which to fashion the sheath.

The knife was so heavy that when strapped to the Colonel's (then the Lieutenant's) side, it caused him to list dramatically to port. The resulting lopsided gait, on the Colonel's (then the Lieutenant's) first march to the field with his new platoon, wore out the leather on the outside portion of his portside boot.

The Colonel's (then the Lieutenant's) crusty old platoon sergeant remarked, in the third person manner of the old Corps, "Well, the Lieutenant has quite a knife there doesn't he." To which the Colonel (then the Lieutenant) responded with, "Yep! Where's yours?"

"Oh, the Staff Sergeant doesn't carry a knife, sir."

"Really? What do you do if you need to cut something?"

"Well, sir, the Staff Sergeant will just ask to borrow the Lieutenant's."

The Colonel (then the Lieutenant) traded in Excalibur for a small and infinitely less weighty pocket knife on his next trip to the gedunk.

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