Many years ago, as a teenager who had just sworn an oath to defend my country, I was riding on a train cross-country to begin a new career. Upon departure from Los Angeles, a sergeant handed me a folder and asked me to not open it. My instructions were to deliver it to an individual waiting for us, the new recruits, at our Texas destination.
That sergeant chose me, simply because I was standing closest to him at the time. Unbeknownst to me, that direct order became my first management assignment. When we arrived, I delivered the folder. Because someone back in LA had given me that assignment, another sergeant in San Antonio decided that I could handle responsibility and appointed me a squad leader over 20 men throughout basic training.
It is humorous now, but think about it. How many people have had responsibilities suddenly thrust upon them without possessing the requisite knowledge or experience to manage or lead others? I’m sure you can imagine.
Well, I knew absolutely nothing about commanding other men – strangers really. The very first night, sitting on the lower bunk in a long row of two-tiered bunks among 80 of these total strangers, I was presented with my initial assignment as a squad leader. A good-sized member of my squad walked over to my bunk, asked me to stand up, kind of friendly like, and asked me where I was from. Okay so far, right?
Standing up, I walked into the center isle to greet him – you know, one recruit to another. I said “California”. To this day, I cannot remember the next word; he simply punched me square in the mouth. So, correct me if I am mistaken – this was to be taken as a challenge to my management authority, right? Well, I took it that way and responded as soon as I could.
Others finally separated us before anyone could get into serious trouble with the Drill Instructor. Not knowing what I was doing or having the foggiest idea what a manager/leader was expected to do, I had survived my first opportunity to utilize the proper response to his challenge. Fortunately, it turned out to be the correct one.
The lesson here is that authority will always be challenged by some combination of those subordinate to you and, if applicable, those to whom you are subordinate. That’s true of virtually any organization. Growing up as a young man in America was experience enough to have learned that you must defend yourself if challenged. Respect comes later.
That single assault upon my right to command the young man, and the subsequent defense of that position, earned me enough respect to last throughout basic training. By the way, that young man and I became friends and remained so throughout the entire eleven week regimen.
Ronald I. Koenig
Ron is a retired, former CEO who is spending his self-described “fishing years” as an editorial writer with the hope of sharing some of what he has learned in his 40+ years in “business life.”