“I would rather suffer with coffee than be senseless.” — Napoleon

On an unseasonably cold morning on Fort Campbell in November 1988, my platoon sergeant and I walked the perimeter of our defensive sector in Training Area 17, checking each fighting position and verifying fields of fire as we slogged along in the ankle-deep mud. This was my first training exercise as a platoon leader and my first opportunity to demonstrate some semblance of tactical skill. So, after occupying the position before sunrise, I’d spent hours on the perimeter fine-tuning range cards, talking to troops, and preparing for the inevitable attack by an aggressor platoon that night.

As we turned away from the perimeter toward the command post, my platoon sergeant suggested we instead pay a visit to the old 5-ton “Expando Van” that served as the battalion maintenance officer’s motor pool on wheels while we were in the field. If the expanse of woodland camouflage netting wasn’t enough of a waypoint, the scent of percolating coffee wafting in the air was. We climbed the metal stairs, filled our canteen cups with hot coffee, and found a pair of tree stumps to sit and talk.

Over the next few years, we spent countless hours on other tree stumps, field chairs, vehicle bumpers, and even sandbags, almost always with a cup of coffee in hand. Our professional relationship was set in the chain of command, but our personal relationship was forged over hot coffee and field time. In those early days, the formative years of my career, I learned many lessons, but none more important than how to transform a simple cup of coffee into something far more valuable: a tool for building relationships, gauging the pulse of the organization, and – most importantly – communicating.

The Universal Power of a Cup of Coffee

In the years that followed, that steaming cup of Joe became a staple in my kit bag. I used it to break the ice with new arrivals (even when the I was the new arrival), broker back office deals when progress seemed at a standstill, counsel subordinates (sometimes without them even knowing), and get a feel for workplace morale (whether that workplace was in an office or in the dirt on some faraway Forward Operating Base). Wherever I went, my coffee came with me.

The steaming cup of Joe possesses an uncanny ability to disarm even the tensest situation. You can feel the calm, smell the aroma, sense the serenity. It produces a moment of Zen unlike any other. Coffee is the great equalizer.

As the 90s passed into my rearview mirror and my hair began to gray, I found myself returning to the steaming cup of Joe more and more. During the March to Baghdad in 2003, my weapon of choice was a plastic “to go” mug and a folding Coleman camp chair. As time passed, the tree stumps, field chairs, and bumpers of my early years were replaced by plush Naugahyde couches at a faraway Green Beans, picnic tables behind the headquarters, or even just a windowsill in a burned-out building. The conversations were the same, just separated by a generation.

How Coffee Can Bridge the Gap Between Leaders and those They Lead

For many of us, the struggle to find a vehicle for engaging others leaves us stranded on opposite sides of a bone-dry Keurig. On one side, a generation of leaders either too busy or too distracted to take a few minutes and fill the water reservoir, to get the conversation started. On the other, a generation of leaders with K-cups in hand, looking for the wisdom and insights of the years of experience represented on the opposite side of the coffee pot. Someone just needs to take the first step.

So, take that first step. Put water in the reservoir. Gather your leaders around you and share a cup of coffee. Get out of the office, get out of the command post, get out and find a tree stump. Push away from the computer, put down the PowerPoint slides, take a break from your phone. Don’t wait to find the perfect opportunity to get the group together for a night at the local watering hole, grab a cup of coffee and start talking now. Build relationships, build trust, build camaraderie. Build your team.

All it takes to get started is a steaming cup of Joe.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.