Tuesday, July 6, 2010

White Space...And the Measure of a Leader

There's an Abraham Lincoln quote that I fell in love with the first time I saw it, inscribed on the back of an OCS class t-shirt in Pensacola, FL.

Here's the quote: "Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

That quote stands on its own as a phenomenal and succinct insight into the character of human beings. The six years of life experience I've had since first seeing it, viewed mainly through the lens of a junior military officer, has only reinforced the signficance of that quote for me. In the spirit of that quote, though, here's my Page Corollary:

"Nearly all men can stay busy from reveille to evening colors with a packed schedule, but if you want to test a man's resourcefulness, fill his schedule with white space."

'White space' here refers to those portions of the training schedule marked as "Sergeant's Time" or "Commander's Time." In other words, there isn't a mandatory training lane, briefing, PT evolution, or anything else specifically marked.

Having just spent 30 straight days down at Camp Edwards for our unit's Annual Training (AT), you can imagine that some of our 720 hours together were marked on our training schedule as, essentially, white space.

Some sections saw opportunity here. Their Non-Commissioned Officers (E-5 and above) and their Officers used the time productively, conducting 'hip-pocket training,' or on-the-fly lessons about their experiences overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo. Others did cultural training for their guys. One section worked on identifying the major terrain features in and around Kabul and creating mini-quizzes to share with the rest of the unit.

Still others just complained about it. You can imagine some of the laments, "What the f**k is this -- the Guard sent us down here for 30 days and we're just sitting around holding our [sensitive items.]" "How stupid is this? We had three hours of white space this afternoon and now the whole brigade has a mandatory briefing at 1830? What cheese brain monkey-ass planned this?" And so on and so on. You could pretty much fill in the rest of the complaints as a sort of AT Mad Libs, appropriately sprinkling on adolescent references to male anatomy and/or the private parts of popular zoo animals.

Even after AT ended, I still heard someone fairly senior making these sort of complaints.

What I told him -- and believe me when I say this was not what he wanted to hear -- was that if he's going to wear that rank and then complain, he's part of the problem and not the solution.

"Do all your Soldiers already know everything they need to know from the Manual of Common Tasks?"


"Then why didn't you take advantage of that white space and use it constructively?"

"Uhh...uhh...well, sir, that's not my job."

The conversation didn't get any better from there, but if you've read this far, I think you get the idea. It's just way too easy of a copout to piss away your available time by letting your guys just go off on their own or hide out in their racks watching movies, and then blame your leadership for the fact that the schedule isn't dense enough.

I don't think Infantry units have as much of a problem with this, because they have a more intuitive grasp of the idea that there's always something to be doing, and yes, it is always a matter of life and death. I got to spend three days living with two of the Infantry battalions and it was like night-and-day coming from a top-heavy Brigade staff (future entries and cool pics coming later, I promise).

In the meantime, I vow to continue making tactful but pointed corrections of anyone above the rank of Private or Specialist who moans and groans about downtime or "white space" during drill weekends and unit training evolutions.

There's always something that can be done.

So get to doing it.

Because somewhere, an impressionable Private or Specialist may be listening to you.

And your attitude may be more contagious than you realize.


kad barma said...

Listen to you, Captain Ballbuster!

You are absolutely right on with this. With such a large portion of my company "working from home", we are a natural magnet for people who like to "fill the white space", so to speak, and we're an instant graveyard for people who can't identify productive opportunities and exploit them cheerfully without being coached or led. Rarely do people inclined to bitch about boredom get it.

One question: Do you give motivational seminars for teenagers? I have a few here who could definitely use the pep talk from somebody else for a change!

The New Englander said...

Haha...love the new moniker. A couple months ago, I wouldn't have been comfortable enough in my newly-green skin to challenge someone like that, but by now all that is out the window.

Here is a link to the famous "Message to Garcia" essay: http://www.birdsnest.com/garcia.htm

This essay only takes a short little while to read but it NAILS the idea of what any boss is really looking for in an employee.

Is this a person who can deliver the letter to Garcia? Or someone who is just going to make excuses along the way?

Someone with a high motivation level AND a high competence level is worth his or her weight in gold to any organization. The type of person who can find Garcia, damn the obstacles en route, is probably the same type who can figure out how to use white space without freaking out or losing his cool.

My best advice for teenagers or anyone else in a NEET situation (Not employed, in education, or training) is to set small goals. I have the whole day off today and tomorrow. If I tried to set a major goal I wouldn't get off the couch, so to speak, but by saying I'm going to get down to the Y and run three miles before noon, it becomes manageable, I can check it off the to-do list...I feel like I've accomplished something and can move on to hit the next task.

Remember Bill Murray's line from What About Bob -- Baby Steps!