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General George Patton, portrayed by George C. Scott in Patton—here taking action to clear a traffic jam in Italy—was a flamboyant but effective leader. Such behavior—tempered with reason—can inspire men in battle-
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it one ’ Semi-humiliating occasion—is abuilt-in X^rnP*e- Such goings-on confer unif0rrrie f Vantage to the knowledgeable ind the ha ,eader- The structured nature
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10enhan a^ord continual opportunity tr°Hed roCe,morale with a dose of con- ,-ait for iness. The skipper need not “erscorewe. bullets to start flying to un- ^fatirm i C°me moments of relief from . BeCaual Pressures.
ded envC 'he military’s highly-regu- ^:irartcelrorirnent and cookie-cutter ap- JfPear u’ even subtle incongruities can L0rnblo\^,er"'han-life.1 Thus, Horatio r 0^Cr S men delighted in watching r°Ui a . 1Se staid officer gulp water H in ,qs®d bucket in the early 1800s; j n'Chief°^’ hi- S. sailors appreciated ames yy °' Naval Operations Admiral , _ kins “high-fiving” Navy Sec-
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and UnaL]JCef)s’ midnight requisitions, examples°r lze^ liberty runs are classic such0; !)latant wartime irregulari- ^iscjplin aCtS C3n severely harm unit dearly vi’, are °f'en dangerous, and dry jUst-te the Uniform Code of Mili-
c°cktai] 6 UP t0 a combat veteran at a stories’’ Party and these are the “war Miniated ° Wd! hkely relate. His most •he heroinarratives are not reserved for die SQ_C taking-of-hills, but rather for P>tservin ew^at questionable, sanity- Mleci stunts that he and his buddies
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the pCrearn Is so much appreciated .^he Veron' hues—simple incongruity, jpt fnai^D dangers and inconveniences qerriancjjnC tbe c°mbat environment so
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sQrne°°,St'n8 initiatives. Consequent- °f the terse messages of World
War II (for example, then-Army Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe’s reply to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”) had as much (or more) impact on the troops as the Bob Hope show or even a by-the-numbers U. S. Marine Corps Birthday celebration in the field.
Even in the rear areas, creative leaders have successfully countered boredom, stress, and other maladies with barge- alongside beer calls, “happy hours” of varying types, and enough outrageous, aviation-peculiar traditions to cause death by laughter or shock or horror. But this madness is not without method and, from a leadership perspective, skillful use of the unlikely can be useful on both command and personal levels. Sometimes, a simple, temporary role reversal on the leader’s part is an effective approach. Such possibilities include:
- Leader as laborer. A classic example is a scene from the film Patton, in which George C. Scott jumps into a busy intersection in the field to direct traffic. For a few moments, at least, General George Patton was a military policeman. Other commanders have boosted morale by taking their turn filling sandbags or hauling water.
- Leader as student. The officer gets the chance to learn from an enlisted expert how to use a computer, adjust a carburetor, or take a better photograph. And the occasion gives the junior the right to say proudly, “I taught the skipper. . . .”
- Leader as supply sergeant. The story is told that, as a field commander in Vietnam, General P. X. Kelley spoke to a melancholy young Marine who badly missed his violin. Somehow, the current Marine Corps commandant managed to find the lad a violin. Similarly, other commanders have produced—as circumstances allowed—hot chocolate and movies, presumably using creative means.
- Leader as messman. Flipping hamburgers for enlisted dependents at a Family Day picnic or serving up the chili in the unit chow line, the “old man” in galley apparel is a time-tested sight.
- Leader as “victim.” The longest line at the Navy Relief carnival usually forms at the dunk tank; what sailor would miss the chance to personally test the skipper’s seaworthiness? The astute officer should also know that senior enlisteds are adept at setting up elaborate practical jokes at his expense—nothing personal intended, of course.
Leadership-by-surprise initiatives can be planned or spontaneous, and need not come only from high-ranking officers. Small unit leaders may not have the authority to issue medals, but they can always find imaginative ways to motivate subordinates. In Tom Clancy’s novel, The Hunt for Red October (Naval Institute Press, 1985), a simple “Hollywood shower” was employed by a submarine skipper as exquisite acknowledgement of a job well done.
Language itself—when allowed to flourish in the forms of makeshift mileage signs and bunker placards—can serve to articulate a cockeyed view of the military world. Troops overseas enjoy calling their canvas chow hall “Sardi’s,” or posting arrows that show the mileage to Chicago or Broken Bow, Nebraska. Mideast peacekeeping Marines in Beirut named their command newspaper the Root Scoop. And otherwise dignified helicopter pilots there proudly endured radio call signs such as “King Kong,” “Howdy-Doody,” and “Psycho.”
In recent years, corporate America, at times slow to change, seems to have discovered the esprit once reserved for battleship and fighting hole scenarios. A number of books that purport to seek out and analyze excellence and commitment instruct aspiring pinstriped leaders to roll up their shirtsleeves, manage by walking around, and, in general, function as rallying points for their people. Such texts encourage business management students regularly to become servants to their employees and customers. McDonald’s policy of giving its top executives some grill-and-counter time is an example commonly cited.
As in other things, balance is necessary. Surprise and incongruity work best when played against a strong sense of discipline and purpose in a unit. Where discipline, purpose, and a strong chain of command are lacking, too much emphasis on the absurd can become menacing, and actually damaging to morale. A well- timed wisecrack from a commander under fire can make the history books, but too much of a good thing can backfire, undermining the skipper’s ability to be taken seriously.
A commander can use a well-developed sense of the ridiculous to attain his objectives in the same way he employs supporting arms. In both cases, timing and delivery are everything.
n§sI November 1986
'Observations made by Midn. 4/c Lauralyn Carter during “Rhetoric and Introduction to Literature” course at U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD, Spring Semester 1986.
C. S. Forester, Lieutenant Hornblower (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1951), p. 142; Observation made by Midn. 1/c Scott Harrison during “Literature of the Sea” course at U. S. Naval Academy. Annapolis. MD, Spring Semester 1986.
See Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York; Harper and Row, 1982).