On Teamwork

I guess before I wrote about leadership in an earlier post I should have written about teamwork. Because if you aren’t a good team player, you will be a bad leader. Just my two cents.

Ike would agree. That’s why I posted his picture.

No man in history, with the exception of Marshal Zhukov, ever controlled a mightier military force. Surely General Eisenhower could have called his own shots, done what he wanted, right?

Actually, no. To study Ike’s history is to look at a long chain of compromises and coalition and team building exercises.

Put simply, General Eisenhower was a supreme team player and eventually a mighty commander. But on many occasions it almost ended badly. Look, I’m not going to talk about Eisenhower at length; I cite his example because it’s a good one.

A phrase from Army OCS. “Never ‘get married’ to your plan, because it isn’t your plan. It is the commander’s.”

What does that mean?

OK- this is very important to the discussion. Everyone has a boss. Even Eisenhower had a boss- Churchill and Roosevelt. Eisenhower may have been responsible for the development of Operation Overlord (the invasion of Europe 1944), but his bosses owned the plan. They could, and did, attempt to modify the plan. Churchill was particularly bad about this, and Eisenhower clashed with him.

Eisenhower knew, however, that his civilian bosses were responsible for strategy and political considerations, and that if they offered changes to Overlord that he could not tolerate, he could remove himself from the team.

This is teamwork, too. Letting the person in charge know they are about to screw up. Eisenhower mastered politeness and discretion, but he would bring his point across, especially when dealing with sensitive subordinates such as Charles de Gaulle, among others.

Eisenhower’s extensive staff developed Overlord, and Eisenhower himself reviewed it and approved the Operations Order (mil speak for plan). But Overlord itself belonged to the politicians, and they would have answered to the people of their countries for its failure.

Eisenhower would have gotten the sack too, of course. That’s part of being a leader and team player as well.

But he knew that his failure would be paid by thousands of his dead washing onto France’s shores.

Leaders and team players are accountable. Where there is no accountability, there is no team. When you let your end drop, everyone else pays as well.

Real leaders look their people in the eye and say, “This is on me, and I need your help to make our plan work.” The leader needs to invest his or her people in the job at hand; they need to place a value and a face on what is going to happen.

Teams work best in small groups; the military has long known this.

What do I mean.

OK, let’s think about our ancestors. They had fleas and were nomadic, they were capable of enormous work performed in bursts, and everyone was related somehow within the average group of thirty to fifty.

About platoon size, actually.

And within the group there were families and friends. Groups of about ten.

Squad size.

Within the family were couples and surviving children, there were two or so dominant voices.

Fire teams.

It is at the fire team level that people are the most comfortable. This is no accident. It’s how our deep social structures operate. So let’s translate this into teamwork.

I’ve been told that no-one should ever really be in charge of more than three to five people.

I believe this to be true. Teams need direction; they also need delegation. A leader who tries to control every member of his team controls NOTHING!

Trust your people! If you have done the right thing as a leader, your team will do the right thing, too. Everyone goes into something with a good attitude, usually. The leader and the team need to find what motivates each person and get them to do that thing that they are good at, that they enjoy.

Do you really think that our 2000x ancestor Og the Magnificent was particularly skilled at cave paintings? Probably not. But Og identified a need for drawings of aurochs with massive genitalia, so Og figured out who had the keenest eyesight and the ability to make the desired mural. No more than three people were involved; Og did not need to control every step of the process.

Og was an ur-leader. Even though there was no word for leadership or teamwork at the time, our ancestors figured it out and passed the basics down to us.

A team:

  1. is small
  2. is cohesive
  3. uses delegation
  4. understands the job at hand
  5. knows who is boss
  6. is trained or trainable
  7. is self-aware
  8. uses good-natured competition
  9. has a clear goal
  10. attacks bite-sized problems
  11. finishes the work
  12. values quality, takes pride and ownership.

These are the very basics, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some stuff.

But I think you all get the idea.

A leader must FIRST be a successful follower, a team player. People will follow such leaders into the worst sorts of hell and emerge out the other side successful.

“Don’t get married to your plan. It’s not yours.”

No, the plan belongs to the team!

21 SEP 2011…2020

Above are our goats, they amuse me.

Today I could use a little amusement. I could post some stupid Army picture, I could talk about soldiering and how it left a mark. I think I’ll devote one paragraph to the subject, and then I’ll move on.

On this day in the past, I huddled with my team in the darkness, the Colonel was giving a combat brief. I chewed on an MRE hamburger, guess that was my equivalent of the traditional steak n’ eggs. He sliced the total mission into chunks, each of us received an assignment. The job at hand? A deliberate attack against a fortified hilltop structure. I swished the beef patty down with some water, I made my contribution to the plan, and the party broke up.

It was show time. The evening of the twenty-first. I shivered in the cold, I looked up and beheld the Milky Way with no light pollution.

Magnificent.

Below, the humans struggled in the dark.

In the valley.

OK, that was a little over a paragraph. But that’s alright, it’s my website. Other things are happening, of course, few remember or were even ever aware of the nameless struggles in those foreign crags. The writing continues apace, this lurks in the background as well. Words are like trauma. If you stuff the bag too full, eventually something will leak out.

I think there’s something like 300,000 words hanging out in the archive, waiting to see the light of day. For reasons financial and tactical they have built up, layer upon layer, like sludge in a tailings pit. The dam strains to hold back the words.

The peaceful village, populated by my faithful readers, sleeps in the valley below. As I write, I am heedless of the consequences of my actions.

One final sentence, one last manuscript, and the dam breaks.

All of the creative good stuff gets dumped on the placid hamlet.

Right now, I am not sure of when this moment will happen. I want it to be within the foreseeable future, and I think it will be. The ultimate test of an author’s work is what the readers think; you are important. An integral part of the process.

This is one of the reasons I love John Birmingham’s Patreon site- it’s two parts entertainment and one part master’s level class on creative writing.

I know I’ve said this before, but I strongly suggest you pay the two bucks and join up. Yeah, JB’s stuff is featured. Of course, it’s his website. But there’s other stuff in there as well, including some of the material I’ve kept behind the dam and he graciously posted on his site.

On these sunny, cool days, thank God for the outlet of writing, entertaining. As I chewed my BBQ sauce and cheese packet smeared cold ration burger back then, I could have never imagined all of this.

So I guess what I want to say is thanks, readers.

At some point the dam will break. When it does, you all will be the first to get wet.

Promise.

Ancestral food

Alright, readers, you may have picked up on the fact that I kind of dig old school gardening. Yeah, at times it can be a pain (like with years of failure to grow cabbages). But overall it’s pretty fun, rewarding.

Something I have gotten into for the past several years has been cultivating Native strains of corn, colloquially known as “Indian corn.” Why.

First, it’s so darn handsome. Each and every ear is unique, and if you catch it just right, it’s very good “on the cob.”

Also, it is tough and the critters don’t like it as much as the hybrid sweet varieties. While it is true that Indian corn isn’t sugary sweet, you can at least eat it, which is NOT the case if raccoons get into your sweet corn patch. Those raiders will leave you with nothing.

Finally, it is a link to our ancestors, whether you are ethnically European, African, or Native, or a mixture of the above. In the past, everyone ate some variety of field corn. But we have strayed from our roots.

It has gone so far that people believe that Indian or field corn is “poisonous” or only fit for hogs.

Nonsense!

But it took some digging to figure out how to enjoy flint, field, or Indian corn. Lemme let you all in on what I have found.

First and foremost, you CAN eat field corn “on the cob.” But getting the timing right is tricky, trust me. There is no sweet spot to eating dried field corn, however, it simply must be dry. But there is a trick to eating it, you’ll lose teeth if you try to bite it.

Today I will teach the trick to you, and show one treat that you can make yourself.

There is a bare minimum of equipment needed for this, and you can actually do everything I will show you with no equipment at all.

Let me begin.

First, you must have a few ears of dry field or Indian corn. See above. (Note: even after a field has been harvested, there are always a few ears laying around.)

Then you must shell the corn. I always thought you needed some cast iron brute of a machine for this, along with a flour grinder, etc.

Nope.

For small batches, all you need is two hands. Grasp the ear of corn in both hands and make a wringing motion, preferably above a bowl or something. The kernels will pop off the ear, some of them vigorously. Before you know it, you have a lot of kernels. See below.

Now you need a pan of some sort, I used a century-old cast iron Griswold No. 8, an excellent fryer. Layer the kernels in the pan, place the pan on low heat. Remember how I said you could do this with no equipment too? That’s right. An alternate method is to chuck the kernels in hot ashes. Messy, but it works, and the ash won’t hurt you (unless you are doing this in some jacked up post-apocalyptic trash fire. Common sense rules, people).

Pretty, aren’t they? With the cast iron slowly heating, wait. You will smell something like popcorn. This is basically what is happening, so no wonder. With field corn, though, you won’t get big white blooms. The kernels will pop and jump a bit, though. This is perfect, stir the kernels from time to time on low heat.

When the corn looks like the image above and it stops popping, the corn is ready to eat, it is “parched.” Note the subtle color difference in the uncooked corn and the parched corn. See it? Another big difference? You can grab a parched kernel and chew it up, it’s an ideal trail food. If you do that with an uncooked kernel, you’ll probably break a tooth. There’s a reason that another name for field corn is “flint corn.”

Now the parched corn is ready to grind. Scoop by scoop I fed it into a mortar and mashed it up. If you have no equipment you can improvise a set-up like this.

Dump the ground-up mixture into a sieve or an old window screen. The fines will pass through, this is corn flour. Use it like, well, flour. The coarse particles that are left behind can be re-ground or be soaked in water to make grits, a US Southern specialty. Grits aren’t for everyone, but they are filling.

Now we have what we really want, corn flour or meal. There are so many things you can do with this, but today we are going to make johnnycakes, an old-fashioned specialty.

Above you can see the flour and a bowl of parched kernels. I kept dipping into the kernels for a snack, they were unlike anything I had had before. Truly a flavor from the century before last. Cool.

I took the meal and mixed it in with an egg, the result looked like cat puke. However, when I dumped it in the pan and it started to cook, it smelled great. A few minutes later and I had a real 18th century style johnnycake, made from 1/4 cup field corn flour and one egg with a bit of butter to fry in.

It tasted better than it looked, trust me. But then again, I’m hardly Gordon Ramsey.

The only regret I had was that I ate the pancake plain, with only a pinch of salt. It would have been awesome with maple syrup.

This experiment was well worth doing! Now I’m starting to get an idea how inhabitants of this land would set out on months long expeditions with literally nothing but a bit of fat, a baggie of corn kernels, and some dried fruit.

Field corn kernels are like knowledge.

Easy to find if you look for it, and a little bit goes a long way.

Give this a try!

“You are never leaving this place…

…alive, motherfucker.”

So said Pete the Ranger to me one fine evening.

Why am I bringing this up today.

Because of several things. One, it’s yet another anniversary of horrible 9/11, a day that changed (and ended) many lives. Two, spent some quality time with the combat trauma counselor today. Three, I was reminded of the vivid “in the moment” thinking of combat due to the excellent writing of a friend. Four, it’s September, a bad month where bad things happened.

Why did I use the above image? Well, it shows me at a real low point. Also, you can see the cement patio with the fold-up chairs in the foreground. When I used to have nothing better to do I would sit in one of those battered, dusty chairs and chain smoke. As the blue noxious plume lofted heavenward, I would behold the mountain from where the Taliban would occasionally shoot wildly inaccurate 107 rockets at us.

The mountain was purple, the sky was red. I smoked away. Night was coming.

Pete walked up, I drew in another drag. He spoke. I exhaled from my nose.

“You are never leaving this place alive, motherfucker.” He paused. “You know that, don’t you?”

I pulled another cheap L&M from my pack and lit off the old cherry from the previous. I drew in and looked at him.

“Yeah. I know.”

There. I confessed what I knew, in my darkest heart. I let it out, into the open. Ten years later, and I still remember this conversation. Word for word.

Pete just looked at me and nodded. He walked off.

There. In his own way he acknowledged the truth of soldiers in combat. To function, one must abandon all hope. To live in the moment, to concentrate only on what is in front of a person. No plans, no dreams, no loved ones, no home.

It was all gone, washed away in moon dust and acrid smoke. I quit writing or calling. I was dead anyway, so maybe people could get used to the idea. Mission piled on mission. Events led to events. I didn’t care about anything but doing my job.

And then, poof! It was over. The mission, complete. The pain, intense. My comrades, betrayed. I was going home, they had to stay and fight.

Our battered little team made it to Bagram AB outside of Kabul. What happened there was really a blur to me, all I can remember is that we eventually filed into a C-17. I held my breath until we leveled off, the Taliban didn’t have anything that could hit us at 30k or so.

Then I felt an unnerving outpouring of relief, grief.

How. Why. What?

This. This is today’s struggle. Pete was right, although in a twisted sense.

Physically, I left. Gone. Touched down around midnight in a base in Central Asia that wasn’t Afghanistan.

But I didn’t leave. Part of me was still there. Will always be there. Until the grave claims me and I forget.

“You are never leaving this place alive…”

He was right.

On Leadership

The above image is one of the finest sergeants I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. He was a real leader, not a placeholder or a slot-filler. The US Army expects soldiers of all ranks to step up and lead; “when in charge, be in charge!”

I was never a Ranger like Pete, not anything special at all. Just a soldier from what is known as the “line,” a one-size-fits-all ground pounder with a few schools and various experiences. I had a mixed career, I was a “mustang,” or a commissioned officer with at least one completed term of enlistment behind me.

So I had the chance to see good and bad leadership from all kinds of angles. My earliest career was spent as the lowliest possible rank cleaning toilets, I eventually ended up as a captain. My chances of making “field-grade” rank, or the next step, major, was cut short by wounds and injuries.

It is what it is. Looking back on the whole military thing, I’m probably most grateful for the insight my career gave me into leadership.

I’m not going to write a book about this, just a short blurb then you all can tell me what you think.

The Army has a formalized school path to teach leadership, of course, but it’s really a story of OJT, or on the job training. Probably the very best leadership school I had was Officer Candidate School, an in-your-face beatdown that weeded out the weak. Somehow I made it and reported in to my first unit as an old second lieutenant; this was an eye opener that made me review what I had experienced as a private, a sergeant, and an officer candidate.

Some observations. Caveat: I was an imperfect leader. I screwed up. I made decisions that bother me to this day. If you try leadership, so will you.

The very first thing that a leader must realize is that EVERYTHING that happens on his or her watch is either one’s fault or problem to solve. A weak leader passes the buck or blames others. If you are that person and you think no-one will notice, you are wrong. If there is a problem, a leader fixes it or realizes that they’re in over their head and they call in help. This is not “weakness,” it is an honest assessment of the situation.

Next, a leader must realize that everything they say and do is under observation at all times, also when they think no one is looking. Like hell, not looking! Your family, co-workers, subordinates see. Nothing escapes them. So if you say one thing and do another, people will notice and it WILL be thrown back in your face, probably at the worst possible moment. Gaslighting and bullshitting will only get you so far, if you are of a mind to try it. Sooner or later the rubber will meet the road and you’ll have to back up what you say. Another factor is to be very careful about joking with your troops, etc. What you may think is a harmless wisecrack might really stick with them and come back to haunt you.

Another point is to be willing at all times to do everything that you ask of your people. Your subordinates will sense it if you are sticking them with an onerous job, especially if it’s something that YOU should be doing, not them. Be an up-front leader, not the dude who is kicking it in the back of the toasty truck while your guys are stringing barbed wire or something in the rain. This point is even more a “thing” if the job is nasty and dangerous. If that is the case, then heaven help the lieutenant that I find fucking off while his people are, I dunno, looking for IEDs.

I guess what I really want to say with the above is to lead by example.

What do I mean by that. Say that you want your people to be professionals, to be experts. Would you show up for work unshaved, stinky, and hungover? Would you give your people bad guidance, or not know diddly about their project? If you do these things, beware, you have no grounds for chastising anyone.

Also, as a leader, you owe it to yourself and your people to be a subject-matter expert in whatever job you take on. It’s OK to start out not knowing a blasted thing; no-one can know everything. What is not OK is getting to the end and you still don’t know anything. If you are that type of leader, then your people are running rings around you and you don’t even know it. Seriously. So if you don’t know shit halfway through a task, then you are not ignorant. You are willfully stupid. There is a difference. If someone like me were to catch you, you would be relieved for cause.

Leaders take acceptable risks, they assume danger. This is not to say that a leader is reckless; your people will see a difference between something bad that needs to go down and someone gets hit or you jacking around and getting someone killed for no good reason. Do you see the difference? A combat leader must motivate people into doing things they desperately don’t want to do for the sake of the mission. If that person is hurt or killed, it wasn’t a result of carelessness. Which leads into the next point.

Leaders are not buddies. One of the big things I learned as a LT is that you must be willing to make the unpopular decisions for the maintenance of good order and discipline, along with furtherance of the mission. The mission overrides all else. So if you need to piss someone off really bad to get the job done, so be it. In a military setting you might have to threaten your soldier with lethal force; if you do, be absolutely ready to pull the trigger and be damn sure you are in the right.

On a lighter note, leaders form teams, they try to bring everyone in on the common effort. A great first sergeant once told me that the Army is “like little league. Everyone gets a shot. If you lean on you star players too much they will burn out; also, your weak players will never have a chance to improve.” He was dead right about this. There will always be those who just don’t get it, who can’t be redeemed. They are part of the team as well. A leader must find some way for everyone to contribute or marginalize those who won’t play ball.

A note: Never, ever give an order that you know will be widely disobeyed. Find another solution.

Make. A. Decision. There. I’ve said it, and with this I will wrap up my mini-course on down and dirty leading. You can never be the deer in the headlights; you must choose. You can ask for advice; this is wise and not weak. What you cannot do is defer the decision onto another. If you do so, then you should not be in a leadership role, that other person should be.

No decision is also a decision, remember that.

So as a spouse, a parent, a team leader, a boss, a military commander of some sort, go with the OCS standard.

“When in charge, be in charge.” Make a decision. Lead.

Now go get ’em, tiger.