“I’m surrounded by idiots.” – Scar, The Lion King (1994)
As a battalion logistics staff officer on the heels of the Gulf War, I had a lot on my plate for a young company grade officer. In addition to the standard fare for internal sustainment, I was also responsible for maintenance and food service. That meant long days and often longer nights as we worked to reestablish readiness in the aftermath of war. I loved my job, even if I survived off an intravenous drip of caffeine for most of that time.
My staff consisted of an eclectic band of, well… misfits. Most of the personnel assigned to my office were castoffs from other organizations, people who had run afoul of someone along the way and been relieved of duty. I learned early on to never complain about my team, because my battalion executive officer would inevitably call me later that same day with what he euphemistically referred to as “a leadership challenge.”
“Hey, S-4, great news! I found someone for you!”
It usually wasn’t great. Not that I had much of a choice in the matter.
STREET WITHOUT JOY
Things went like that for about a year. Eventually the leadership transitioned, and a new command team arrived. My group remained largely unchanged; we had muddled through the “leadership challenges” and made progress where it mattered.
Then, one afternoon, the phone in my office rang. It was the new battalion commander, who summoned me to his office. It only took a moment to connect the dots: I’d had two of my people out installing window air conditioners in the headquarters building that day and they must have had a run-in with the boss. I arrived in the battalion headquarters a few minutes later to find a befuddled and somewhat frustrated lieutenant colonel standing outside his office door. He waved me over, pointing to his office where a growing puddle of condensation flowed from a new air conditioner that had been installed backward.
“You know, I don’t even care about the air conditioner,” he began. “But what’s wrong with that staff sergeant who installed it?” The man he mentioned was the oldest staff sergeant I had ever seen, a self-proclaimed Vietnam veteran who spoke with an accent that sounded like a strange mix of Patrick Starfish and Forrest Gump. I did my best to keep the sergeant and his partner out of sight, but my luck had run out that day.
“Did you know the brigade commander was here today?” he asked. “I was trying to brief him while your two people worked on that thing,” gesturing toward the dripping air conditioner. “They were mostly quiet,” he continued. “Your sergeant was telling some kind of Vietnam war story, I think. You could hear bits and pieces, but it wasn’t too bad.” I had a sick feeling where this was leading. “Finally,” the commander continued, “your sergeant pops up in the window, looks the brigade commander dead in the eye, and says, ‘Then you dip ‘em in human sh*t!’”
I didn’t know quite what to say. But the boss laughed, told me to get the team back up to fix the air conditioner in the morning, and shook his head as he walked back into his office. Then he turned and said, “I don’t know where you find these people, but you really need to get some good help down there.”
HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE
That was my fate. I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I could either find a way to make it work or go down with the ship. And I wasn’t about to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic while it was sinking. But I was also very goal-driven and outcomes-focused. I wasn’t content to just get by. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to set a standard for others. I wanted to win.
Yet without the “A-team” talent to get there, it was going to be an uphill climb, Sisyphus-style. It was, as my executive officer like to say, “a leadership challenge.” And I was up for it.
1. Find the hidden talent.
Some of us are lucky enough to find our calling early in life and leverage it to great success. Others aren’t so fortunate. When I eventually fired my property book officer, he was replaced by the lieutenant no one wanted, an odd character who carried a box of field manuals during training exercises because, as he said, “They’re field manuals. Aren’t we supposed to take them to the field?” I soon learned that the lieutenant possessed an eidetic memory. While we spent countless hours improving his other skills, he leveraged that hidden talent to become the best property book officer I have ever seen.
2. Optimize the talent you do have.
Once you’ve identified your team’s individual skills, focus them in ways that gain the most from their performance. My staff sergeant and his partner weren’t the brightest bulbs, but they shared an inhuman work ethic. As a team, they fed off one another; the whole of their effort was greater than the sum of its parts. They still had their moments–like the air conditioner fiasco–but their teamwork reflected the benefit of optimizing limited talent.
3. Provide detailed guidance and intent.
We often speak in terms of empowering subordinate initiative with broad guidance and clear intent. When managing mediocre talent, that tends to work against you; detail is an absolute necessity. I learned this lesson the day I sent someone to “top off” our five-ton cargo truck. When I didn’t see him for three hours, I called the motor pool, only to listen to the hysterical laughter in the background as the battalion motor officer explained that my sergeant had spent the previous three hours wrestling the canvas top off the cargo bed of the truck.
4. Show your appreciation.
People on the lower end of the talent spectrum rarely receive praise, but they need it as much as anyone else. Typically, they’re used to the opposite; for them, being on the receiving end of insults, angry outbursts, and general ridicule is the norm. When something goes right, reward them as you would anyone else. When they’re making positive progress, encourage them. In the end, a little motivation goes a long way.
5. Keep calm and carry on.
Even the most talented people make mistakes. Those with less talent tend to make more, and they often make decisions that defy common sense. Losing your temper won’t get you anywhere with mediocre talent and doing so will likely erase any gains you have achieved. Maintain a good sense of humor. You’re going to need it.
In the end, I had as much affection for my weird little team of misfits as I’ve had for any group of high potentials. They worked hard, they gave their best effort every day, and they performed beyond anyone’s expectations. I still look back on that group as one of the most exceptional teams I’ve ever led, and the heights we achieved were not insignificant. Yes, it was a leadership challenge, but it was worth it.