Look around my office, and it’s probably not all that different than anyone else’s. On the walls and on the shelves, you can find scattered reminders of who I am and from where I came. A stained-glass screaming eagle from Fort Campbell, an acrylic oil barrel from Saudi Arabia, and challenge coins from everywhere in between. Each memento represents a memory, a piece of my past. But one is especially memorable. Leaning against the corner where two walls meet, almost out of sight, is a football bat.
For the uninitiated, a football bat is a euphemism for someone or something that is, well… screwed up beyond comprehension. Years ago, while standing knee-deep in freezing water in a half-finished crew-served fighting position in the mountains of northern Idaho, a fellow ROTC cadet – who also happened to be a former enlisted Marine – threw down his pickaxe, looked at me and said, “Man, this is as f*cked up as a football bat.” He wasn’t wrong – we’d hit bedrock hours before and no amount of pick work was going to get us any deeper. But we were told to keep digging as long as there was daylight. The phrase struck me in a way that seared it into my memory.
Over the years, that phrase and many others like it helped shaped my way of communicating, for better or worse. Maybe it was the company I kept, maybe it was the company I didn’t keep. But those phrases eventually permeated my speech patterns to the point where I spurted one-liners as effortlessly as my battle buddy did all those years ago. They evolved from the experiences – and the life lessons – of nearly thirty years in uniform. They reflected my thinking, the very philosophy with which I led.
1. What goes around comes around.
Some people call it Karma, the cycle of cause and effect in life. My first platoon sergeant had his own way of reminding people not to cross him and took a certain amount of pleasure in seeing Karma come full circle. A reminder that following the Golden Rule is always best.
2. Sometimes, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.
There are moments when it’s better to just act than to take the time to seek permission. This is especially true in situations where the answer is most likely going to be “yes”, but often proves equally true when the answer might be “no.”
3. Some days you’re the bug and some days you’re the windshield.
Life isn’t always going to go your way. Roll with the punches and don’t let it get you down.
4. It ain’t nothin’ but a thing.
A variation of the bug and windshield proverbial. Don’t sweat the small things. If you’re losing sleep over your choice of color palette on a PowerPoint slide or the font you used on the information paper no one will read, this was meant for you.
5. Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.
In the summer of 1989, one of my soldiers returned for the third time from a short school intended to help him increase his general-technical (GT) score. After each attempt, he somehow managed to lower his score, until finally reaching a point where he no longer qualified for his own specialty. These words were the response from my platoon sergeant when I asked how this was even possible.
6. Never trust a lieutenant who thinks they’re a squad leader.
If you’re always trying to do someone else’s job, no one is doing yours. Let that soak in.
7. This ain’t my first rodeo.
This proverbial is often heard in context with the previous one. Micromanagers love nothing more than to explain to people in detail how to do their own jobs. Those same micromanagers love nothing less than being reminded that they’re not helping.
8. If it looks stupid, but it works, then it ain’t stupid.
Give your troops a simple task and they’ll probably find a way to screw it up. Give them a complex task and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.
9. If you’re on time, you’re late.
Whether you’re talking about a meeting, a formation, or LD time for movement, being on time means being in place and ready at the appointed time – go time, not show time. There’s nothing more annoying than “that guy” who doesn’t understand what “go time” means.
10. Keep your head on a swivel.
Whenever my troops hit “go time” my first platoon sergeant always used these words to remind people to pay attention to their surroundings. It didn’t matter if it was at a range, during a road march, or as we prepared to deploy – he wanted everyone awake and alert.
As I look over at my football bat today, I can’t help but smile and feel a twinge of nostalgia. Most people offer a quizzical look when they see it, stuck somewhere between not knowing what it is and thinking they should know. They always ask, and I share a quick story about a March morning long ago in the Idaho mountains when a pickaxe, a fighting position, and bedrock came together to teach me a valuable life lesson.