A Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin yelling an incomprehensible order to two army trainees caused me to remember a remotely similar experience. We were marching to the ends of the earth on a very hot August day in Kentucky, loaded down with gear and bad attitudes. Most of the terrain around us looked like nicely packed, moist clay, but our road was all dust, no doubt the brainchild of some twisted Top Sergeant. I still do not know how that road could be so dusty in such a humid climate, even with the trucks and troops moving over it.
My comrades seemed just as thrilled with the day’s activity as I was, only some were more vocal. Apparently, nothing helps a miserable sojourn like people incessantly carping about it. I get no awards for not carping: it just took too much breath to complain. I was doing plenty of thinking, and none of it was about the beauty of nature or how well olive drab goes with the scenery or how it contrasts so nicely with the our beet-red faces.
It was around this time that Sarge decided a little ditty would be helpful. Why not try something musical to help keep our minds off our lot and our legs on pace — which was still a problem at this stage of training. Sarge, without notice, launched into the “call” of a fine, robust and treasured old marching cadence that had helped so many young men keep their minds off killing their drill instructor (this would not normally be a concern for Sarge, except today we marched to the range with live ammo, a factor not lost on him).
Although the selection was in many ways appropriate – it had the proper rhythm, good, catchy lyrics, was time-tested and cadre approved – it had a deficiency that seemed to me important: only Sarge knew the lyrics. This mess of marchers who for the first time heard this cadence call, was an unusual one: every last man jack was either in college or grad school; a plurality, as it turns out, were political science majors (which were not, we had quickly determined, among Sarge’s favorite people; I’ll not say he was anti-intellectual, it was more like reading and thought were not frequent guests at his mind’s table). We might have done better with show tunes or campaign songs, even Eatin’ Goober Peas might’ve worked, but Sarge’s choice was a non-starter.
Our response, of course, was complete silence. We didn’t know the words; we could not respond. The gambit did have the advantage of taking our minds off the drudgery of the march, but only momentarily. Sarge was a tad put-off by the silence. One can easily understand his chagrin. You stick your neck out to help the group, you show you cannot carry a tune but still have the courage to step right out there and try to help, and what do you get? Silence. Not a word. Crickets. Even the tramping of our boots was hushed by the lack of response.
This was not what Sarge had in mind when he started the song and I am sure he was embarrassed, having stuck out his neck for the group. He sputtered a bit, as one will when one commits a faux pas. But instead of reconsidering his choice, he simply forged ahead: if at first you don’t succeed. . . He sang out the exact same cadence lyrics again. And got the exact same response.
I was a few steps ahead of Sarge but I could feel his displeasure, even through the humidity, dust, and solar heater that the army called a helmet. Maybe he mistook our ignorance for insubordination. Whatever the reason for his reaction, I think the military jargon of the time was “pissed”; Sarge was pissed. He did not deserve this, would not have it, and it would be corrected. Therefore, he sang the exact same call yet again, apparently believing that by force of will we would be invested with the lyrics. To be sure, Sarge was a willful character, but this mountain was too high. We just could not get those lyrics to materialize. All of us tried. We searched our memories for anything, anything from our fathers, from old movies, from a story, anything at all that would give us the words. Nothing.
This was not funny. It was not funny because, as every person who has ever worn a uniform knows, you don’t necessarily have to stop marching when you arrive at your destination. If the DI is not happy, you can keep on marching, past the range, over endless hills to uncharted camp areas where men may never be found. You can march, clean weapons, do calisthenics, or clean latrines, all hours of the day and night, if the sergeant chooses. No, this was not funny: it was serious.
This call and silence continued for some time with Sarge growing exponentially apoplectic with each failure. Finally, some bright and courageous chap called out a cadence that some of us did know, perhaps from Boy Scouts (thank you Baden-Powell!). We went through it a few times, and slowly added other verses. Soon, Sarge was happily leading the chant again. All was well.
Although this memory may sound unique in concept, I will bet it’s not unique. How many times has a leader at your work called out an expectation without any explanation? How many times have you been confused or uncertain about a project because no one first taught? How often have you? The cardinal principle for teachers is to start where the learner is. It’s the same for leaders. Knowing is not doing, but without knowledge, doing is a rough road to march.