It was week 11 of a 13-week Infantry Basic Course for new privates in the Army at none other than Fort Benning, Georgia. I was the Senior Drill Instructor for one of the platoons in Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 38th INF. Infantry School was commonly known as the “Fort Benning School for Boys.” Unlike most military training posts, Fort Benning had only Infantry training at the time and only trained new male recruits.
Our platoon was a great one; a nice compliment of motivated and seasoned Drill Instructors, as well as a physically fit platoon. Having men from all over the country with as many different upbringings posed some challenges. We were able to mitigate many of these challenges by giving the new Soldiers two common enemies; tough, realistic training and naturally us, the Drill Instructor.
By doing this the men were required by necessity to focus on a common goal, graduating Infantry training and moving on to their Army unit. Unlike a normal basic training, which was 8 weeks at the time, Infantry training combined both the basic and advanced training into a single continuous course which lasted 13 weeks. As the weeks go on the comfortability level increases in both the trainees and the cadre. We were preparing for a week long Field Training Exercise, (FTX) which measured everything they had learned in their training. It was the keystone for completing the course, earning their blue Infantryman’s Cord and moving on to their unit. Tempers were flaring a bit in the barracks and Soldiers were showing their irritation with one another. We could hear the back and forth bantering from our DI office in the barracks and after about five minutes of this I rose up from my desk and told my DI partners “I’m going to end this right now!” As stated before, I was the Senior DI for the platoon and held the rank of Sergeant First Class. My previous assignment in the 75th Ranger Regiment as well as combat experience set me up for success in the Army and I was promoted ahead of my peers in the regular Army. My eight years in the Army had been stellar and exciting up to this point, however my partners had more “Army” experience with 12 to 15 years in service. After my statement my partner, Staff Sergeant Requena stopped me and said, “Boss, I’ll take care of this.” He knew immediately that my statement carried a “pain” consequence for the men, and I would PT (physical training) them into being a team once again. Many times this is a very effective technique, but Drill Instructor Requena, with his vast experience, went for a different approach.
Staff Sergeant Requena was a quiet man, family oriented, and very skilled as an Infantry Mortar man. He rarely was upset and always tried the “fathers” approach to new men. Our leadership styles complimented each other. He walked out to the bay and the men were still bickering like little boys over who was going to get ice cream first. He walked half way down the bay and yelled “At Ease!” Immediately all the men became attentive and the bickering stopped as all eyes turned to DI Requena. He looked at all of them and calmly said “Gentlemen, this is week 11, you have two weeks to go, cooperate and graduate.”
Cooperate and graduate, this was not the first time I’ve ever heard this statement and probably heard it back when I went through Infantry training. It was not necessarily what he said, but his timeliness and delivery. We went back to our office to prepare our gear for the FTX and for the remaining time that evening the men were back into their preparation mode, the “cooperation” mode. This was the first instance as a leader that I truly realized that sometimes the axe or hammer or whatever you want to call it isn’t always the right tool for the job. I kept that “cooperate and graduate” lesson in my leadership arsenal and used it on several occasions throughout the remainder of my 26 year military career.
Fast forward to the week of 30 October, 2011 and we landed in the unexpected Nor’easter in Boston. We were in Springfield, MA on business in a town that received 30 inches of heavy wet snow in less than 24 hours. There was an estimate of 700,000 people without power, and still rebuilding from a violent tornado caused from hurricane Irene just a few months prior. Springfield, like many small cities right now suffer from their own economic hardships. The hotel where we were booked was one of few establishments that had power and facilities, so as you can imagine it became a shelter for residents and their pets and the hotel was doing the best they can under their own stress of limited staff, food and their own intermittent power losses. Anything that was open in town (restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations etc…) had lines hours long. The elevated stress was apparent and this only made the situation worse.
Maybe it’s the military and the prior hardships we had to endure at times that allows both my wife and I to just deal with things a little easier than others. The snow did its damage, fortunately the weather was hanging around 50 degrees, which assisted in the recovery process. Yes there is a 3 hour wait for food, but your going to eat. We were in a hotel booked over capacity and they were doing the best they could under the circumstances.
I actually was able to get a workout in one of the days and rode the elevator with three people who were just bitching about everything going wrong in the hotel. They “couldn’t get fresh towels” or something silly like that and on the slow ride to my floor I felt my anger building, thinking “don’t these people get it? The town is in a state of emergency!” My immediate reaction was going to be “stop your bitching, you have water, hot food and a bed, that’s more than most people have now!” However right then I flashed back to 1992 and Drill Instructor Requena and as the elevator stopped at my floor I calmly and even with a little smile looked at the one doing most of the complaining and said “Ma’am, half the state is out of electricity, I’m sure they are doing the best they can to restore your power. Everyone at the hotel is ok, I think what we should all do now is simply…cooperate and graduate.” I exited the elevator feeling good and thanking Drill Instructor Requena for that valuable lesson.
The “graduate” part fit in this situation as well, with the implied task of just getting along and out of here once your power is reestablished. I got the point across and did it without putting anyone in a choke hold!
Cooperate and graduate; a very effective and calming statement that can be used with your family, employees or whenever the right time is needed to assist calmly in an issue and give people direction and hope.
Hooah! Keep moving forward!
Lead Consultant & Performance Coach
Elite Leadership Training LLC