There’s an old adage that all good war stories begin with the same five words. This story is no different. It begins on a summer day in 1989, in a maintenance shop on the far side of Fort Campbell, KY, where I was busy combing through a deadline report when a line of warrant officers filed by the shop counter, bound for the exit.
“Where are you guys headed?” I asked.
“WOLT!” The senior warrant officer leading the group pronounced, moving on by as if this was an everyday occurrence. As they passed through the exit and down the stairs into the hot morning sun, I looked over to my maintenance control sergeant, a newly-promoted master sergeant who until recently had been my platoon sergeant.
“WOLT?” I asked. “What the hell is ‘WOLT’?”
“Warrant Officer Lunch Time,” he replied flatly.
“Warrant Officer Lunch Time? It’s only 1100,” I answered. “Isn’t that a little early?”
“They’re warrant officers, L-T, what do you expect?” Good point.
In the months that followed, I learned about WOLT – and its nefarious cousin, EWOLT (Early Warrant Officer Lunch Time, which began thirty minutes earlier and ended thirty minutes later) – as I matured into my job and grew closer to the maintenance technicians in my charge. Long before books like Coffee Lunch Coffee became popular and social media was the nexus it is today, WOLT and EWOLT were the networking tools of choice. During lengthy lunches of iced tea and jaeger schnitzel at the old Rod and Gun Club, we devised detailed maintenance plans, strategized with logistics assistance representatives, and synchronized a steady flow of repair parts that secured readiness across much of the division. For a young lieutenant, however, the education extended beyond the “shop talk” that dominated our meals.
The most senior of the warrants was a decorated Vietnam veteran at the twilight of a long and distinguished career. Chuck Hunley was old enough to be my father, and wise enough to deftly mold a young officer mired in his formative years. A man who could master any job on the shop floor with a rubber sledge hammer and 18” Crescent wrench, Chief Hunley was the stereotypical “crusty old warrant.” Irascible on the surface, underneath the gruff exterior was a seasoned mentor with a lifetime of lessons to impart on those willing to listen. Where others might ignore an aging warrant officer whose best years were behind him, I listened. Closely.
Chief Hunley spoke slowly and deliberately, with an unmistakable eastern Tennessee drawl that belied his sharp intellect and wit. He communicated with remarkable candor, and never spared others when sharing his opinion. Once, when our headquarter downgraded an award recommendation I’d prepared for one of his soldiers, he responded angrily: “Goddammit, Lieutenant, awards are free. All they cost you is the time it takes to write them. Sometimes, that’s all these kids have. They don’t get no more pay, they don’t get no more time off. The least you can do is give ‘em an award.” That’s the kind of wisdom you carry with you for years.
Long after the schnitzel was gone and the iced tea pitchers ran dry, the real learning began. When Chief Hunley shared his thoughts, the words were powerful. What some might misconstrue as simple backwoods country logic was, in fact, deeply insightful. His words shaped my approach to leadership for the better part of three decades and continues to define who I am and how I lead. Over the years, people would sometimes ask what influenced my leadership style the most. The answer was as simple as the first day I heard it for myself: WOLT.
Thirty years later, Chief Hunley’s Tennessee drawl still echoes in my memories. I remember those long lunches, those longer discussions, and the learning that accompanied both. He shared his wisdom and never asked anything in return, other than to take care of those around me, to treat them like family. His words were neither simple nor ‘backwoods’, they were wise beyond my understanding.
Sometimes, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. As a leader, risk is part of the job. If you want to wear the rank, be prepared to make the tough decisions and stand by them. If you get your ass chewed once in a while, that’s okay. It just comes with the territory.
A sharp axe is better than a bad back. Work smarter, not harder. Make sure you know what the problem is before you solve it; if not, chances are you’re creating a solution in search of a problem.
Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. The “3 Bs” permeate every aspect of how I lead today. They are fundamental to effective engagement and something every leader should embrace. Don’t waste others’ time with long-winded diatribes. Say what you need to say, make your point, and move on. Others will thank you for it.
Always stand up when somebody comes into the room. Good manners will do more for you than just about anything else. Be respectful of others. Don’t hesitate to use “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing others. Open the door for someone when their hands are full. Let your soldiers eat first. And always stand up when somebody comes into the room.
Nothin’ happens when nobody’s watchin’. Joe is always going to be Joe. If you assign a task, make sure you’ve got supervision in place to assess progress. “Trust, but verify” is just a smart way to do business.
Never let ‘em hear you yell. Keep calm and carry on. If you have to raise your voice in anger to get people to follow you, you’re doin’ it wrong. If you find yourself doing it often, then your people aren’t even listening to you. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of leading.
Ain’t no ‘purty’ way to get cow shit off the road. A bad situation won’t resolve itself. When thing get really messy, you have to be ready to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Just own the problem and get after it; don’t blame others for the mess.
It don’t take a big man to carry a grudge. Always remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Some days you’re the bug, some days you’re the windshield. Things won’t always turn out the way you intend. Don’t waste your time obsessing when things don’t work out in your favor. Learn from it and move on. (The parallel to this is “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,” which suggests you have some degree of choice in whether to be the bug or the windshield. But you may also note that some people tend to be the bug more often than not. That’s a choice, too.)
Never let ‘em see you sweat. No matter how tough the situation, no matter how great the stress, keep your cool. Nothing breaks down cohesion like a leader unable to maintain grace under pressure. If you crack, they crack. Cinch up your cargo belt and lead.
Years later, I returned to Fort Campbell and sought out my old friend and mentor for one more WOLT. We broke bread, we talked, we shared stories of the years that had passed in between. It was almost as if nothing had changed, that we’d seen each other only days before. Whether you attribute that to a strong mentoring relationship or just an easy-going old warrant officer, it served as a reminder of how important such relationships are to us, how they shape who we are and who we become. He never stopped teaching, and I never stopped learning.