Are You Going To Salute Me, Son?

Are You Going To Salute Me, Son?

man-151816_640There’s a cat and mouse game every new military member struggles to learn. It’s one of those things that probably doesn’t matter all that much, but after hundreds of hours of customs and courtesies are drilled into your head, you tend to sweat the small stuff. Sometimes that’s the difference between life and death, so the game certainly has it’s place.

My wife (an Army vet) often reminds me that the other branches had bigger things to worry about (like not getting shot), but I still think the game is universal to some degree. I won’t keep you in the dark. The “game” I’m referring to is the mental chess match an officer and and an enlisted member play with one another as they cross paths out doors. For those who may not be aware, the enlisted party must initiate a salute whenever they meet a recognized commissioned officer. The game was played by determining just how close you could get before doing it (there is a specific instruction for distance, but to be honest I don’t remember and just don’t care enough to research it).

I only lost the game once…

I have many fond memories of salutes gone awry. Some were done so awkwardly that it was near impossible to maintain bearing, but those aren’t the subject of this post. They wouldn’t be all that entertaining to anyone who didn’t serve anyway.

The episode in question happened within the first few days of my assignment in South Korea. I had just finished work and was hastily making my way to the base post office to pick up a package from my parents. In those days work ended at 1630 (4:30 pm). That meant I had exactly thirty minutes before Retreat signaled and the National Anthem played. Retreat isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you must stand at attention saluting the flag throughout the entirety of Star Spangled Banner. So you try not to be outside when it happens.

In my rush, I approached the final street before the small sloped driveway to the post office. I looked up and instantly felt a flutter of nervousness when I noticed the full-bird Colonel (one rank below Brigadier General) approaching me from the other side. Mentally I began preparing my salute.

In perfect unison we both stepped off opposite curbs and began the final paces toward our inevitable meeting. Then without warning he drew a deep breath and nearly screamed,

“Are you going to salute me, son?”

How’s this for a salute?

Instinctively I lifted my right hand and offered the most limp, confused salute of my career.

“Yes, sir.” I held my hand against the brim of my cover (hat) as we awkwardly gazed at each other and crossed the street together. “Good, how? Good evening sir?” I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even return the salute.

To add in insult to injury, the encounter slowed me down so much that I only made it to the driveway of the post office before retreat crackled over the base loudspeakers. The Colonel probably would have laughed at me if he hadn’t also been caught.

Contrasting leadership styles

I’ll come back to the over zealous full-bird Colonel in a bit, but first I want to flip to a different side of the same coin.

Months later I was assigned to a pack and ship detail. It is an exercise only done every few years. My job was “spotter” on a two man crew. Our task was to take loaded semi-trailers to a staging area. From there they would then be inspected and taken to port. It wasn’t complicated, but it required a bit of coordination to ensure the right material was shipped on the right boat. That equated to a whole lot of good ‘ol “hurry up and wait.”

The roads leading to the staging area were narrow and parking was at a premium. So, we learned quickly that we didn’t even want to depart the base until there was room for us at the stage. That meant finding a hiding spot for our forty-footer fully loaded down with munitions. My driver was excellent. He located a dead end alley/road in an obscure corner of the base and skillfully backed us in. My job was to signal him from outside the truck so he didn’t hit anything.

I did my job dutifully for the first week or so (the assignment lasted upward of three) until both the driver and I agreed getting out every time was just a waste of time. There were no hazards in the alley, and almost no chance of causing a scene. As a fail safe, I used the mirror on my side to alert him to any changing conditions.

Objects are closer than… well shit!

One afternoon we were nestling our transport back into its hiding place. It was just after lunch so there were a few more people meandering around behind us than usual. None seemed close enough to pose a risk as I peered through my mirror. I had twisted myself against my door as I did so in order to give myself maximal field of vision.

Then, violently, and without warning my door swung open. I grabbed my (buckled) seat belt as I started to spill out of the truck. At least I was doing one thing right.

“Why. The. FUCK are you not out spotting your driver?” The Silver Oak Leaf of the Lieutenant Colonel’s insignia glinted in the sun. Instinctively I tried to pop up a salute while steadying myself at the same time. “Don’t salute me! Get the hell out of this truck and do your job!”

“Yes, Sir,” I replied. As I exited he gave one last tidbit of knowledge.

“I better never see you warming a passenger seat again, Airman.” he looked up at my driver. “That goes for both of you!” With that he turned and walked away.

When we returned to our shop, we were both expecting hell to be unleashed. Nothing ever came of it though. The Lt. Col. hadn’t said a word to anyone but us. Over the remainder of the year we both saw him periodically in places like the chow hall or out on the street and always gave him his due respect. Not because he’d yelled at us, but because he had earned it. The orders he’d given us were based on doing the right thing, not obligation. The fact that he hadn’t told on us meant he trusted us to follow through. That was a trust neither of us was willing to break.

In contrast, I wouldn’t have even been able to pick the full-bird out of a lineup even two minutes after he’d yelled at me to salute him.

The safety “choice”

There’s a lot of pseudoscience going around these days about the “choice” a worker makes to be safe. This post is already far too long to broach that subject so I’ll get into that later. There is, however, a real safety choice that hardly anyone acknowledges. It’s the choice the safety professional has to act in a way that supports employees vs ordering them to do safety’s bidding.

Think of it this way: You can be like the full-bird and yell and scream for people to do things “because I (or God-forbid…OSHA) say so.” Or you can be like the Lt. Col. who coached us to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do… and then trusted us to do it! The latter is how you get an empowered workforce that wants to work safely.

Either way, it’s your choice.

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“That’s not my problem,” Sgt. Green shrugged. “I didn’t lose it. I’m going inside and watching SpongeBob. Screw you guys!”

Those of you who served in the military probably won’t be surprised, but Sgt. Green had a funny way of saying ‘screw you’ that sounded remarkably like ‘F-you.’ As soon as he’d said it, he walked inside and left us to sort out our conundrum.

This is one of those Korea Leadership lessons that has stuck with me over the years. I figured it would be a good change of pace just in case anyone’s gotten the idea that I’m only interested in bashing the poor examples of Safety Professionals out there. As I get farther into this thing, you’ll see quite a few posts about leadership. Because without it, there’s no point in even trying to get better at safety. 

We’ve pulled safety so far apart from everything else in our businesses, that it’s tempting to believe you can be a great leader and have someone else handle safety for you. That’s just not true. A good leader might have someone write his speeches for him, but he (or she) damn well better execute flawlessly. That means living safety just as much as one lives profit, production, quality, etc. Most of this blog is aimed at helping the safety professional write better speeches (so to speak), but the leadership of any given organization is the critical piece to making those speeches resonate. You get my drift. 

In any case, Sgt. Green had a right to be mad that night. We had committed a CARDINAL (someone remind me to post about that word one day) sin. In the Air Force, one of the highest priorities is protecting assets, both human and machine. Obviously, the machine assets come with some hefty price tags, so you can imagine how much emphasis might be put on, say… not having a wrench sucked into the engine of an F-16. Every tool that could possibly come into contact with the flightline had to be tagged, tracked, and accounted for every day, every shift. We had some pretty simple tricks and even more robust systems for accomplishing that task, but the long and short of it was that no one ever went home until every tool had been accounted for. 

That night, our swing-shift crew had killed it and inspected over 150 missiles. That number might not impress you, and in all honesty, the inspection part of the task was a quick thing. What wasn’t quick was pulling all of the missiles out of storage, putting them on a trailer, tying said trailer down (per regulation tie-down configuration), driving them to our shop, taking them off the trailer, and then painstakingly opening the containers. That was the hardest part. The containers were made of fiberglass and rusted metal that had sat in storage since (in some cases) the 1960s. Nothing lined up and two or more guys had to pry the bolts loose to open the box, then muscle them back into place once the inspection was done. All of this being done while praying some idiot didn’t do something stupid like shatter one of the protective covers on the front of the unit. 

Like I said, we had killed it! I was driving the forklift that night and remember driving into the bay to scoop up the last missile and seeing a look of panic on the face of the Airman who was doing tool inventory. I parked the lift and went over to help, but my heart sunk as soon as I walked up to him. 

“We’re missing a crescent wrench,” he said softly. I looked at my watch and noted that we were already 45 minutes past the end of our shift. From that point the rest of the crew went into panic mode and tried to find the missing tool. Until Sgt. Green walked back in.

“What’s taking you guys so long? Let’s go home.” He knew there was an issue, but I’m sure he wanted to rub it in a bit before someone delivered the news. He had been in the next bay handling some smaller jobs in order for the rest of us keep focused and get our work done. Everyone went silent and waited for someone else to speak up. Finally, the same Airman I had spoken to broke it to him. That’s the point at which he decided to go watch SpongeBob. 

We spent the next three hours re-opening and re-inspecting EVERY SINGLE UNIT in the exact reverse order we had begun earlier that night. Sgt. Green watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) the entire time. He came out once to check and gave us some more funky sounding ‘screw yous,’ but for the most part, we toiled alone. And we found nothing…

It was nearly four in the morning when I pulled the last load of two missiles (stacked on top of each other like Legos) into the bay. I backed the lift up and raised my mast, then forward again to lift the top missile off. As I tilted my forks back a loud, resounding metal CLANK echoed through the bay. The wrench had been sitting on the lip of that last missile. Sequentially, that meant that those two missiles were the first two we had inspected. So yes, we had lost the wrench at the very start.

You’re probably reading this thinking that I’m going to give you some predictable line about how Sgt. Green wasn’t a good leader because he didn’t have his troops’ backs. That he wasn’t willing to get down and dirty and do the hard work. That’s certainly what we all felt that night (and said in our own funky version of screw you, repeatedly).

But the real leadership lesson is actually quite the opposite. Sgt. Green happened to be one of the best examples of a leader I’ve ever worked for. I’m not even sure he was aware of how good he was. The real lesson is accountability. He had given us a job to do, and expectations regarding the quality of work required of us. The simplest of our tasks that night was to maintain accountability of our tools, and we had not done that. Sgt. Green made us own it. Most leaders don’t have the fortitude to do something like that because it means drawing a line in the sand and backing up your words when shit hits the fan. All while suffering through the hate and discontent your people sling at you from the other side of the line. 

If nothing else came of that night, that crew never lost another tool. The amazing thing is, though, that we actually became a team that night. A team that never questioned who their leader was.

What unexpected lessons have you learned from the great leaders in your career? 

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