[October 9, 2017] After a wild afternoon where I burnt down the cotton fields behind their house, I sat down to dinner with both my grandparents. This was the same place where I was paid 10¢ a day to pick cotton and learned about teamwork. That day as a young child, I was to learn another valuable lesson; don’t ignore the obvious.
“How was your day?” my grandfather asked at the dinner table. It was an uncomfortable conversation but one where I learned the value to telling the truth, speaking up when something had to be said, and never ignoring a problem. My school years that followed proved that I’d learned this lesson well when I often brought up topics my teachers wanted to avoid.
“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” – George Orwell, English novelist, essayist, and critic
Senior leaders are given their authority because others are relying upon them to never disregard the obvious and find solutions that others may have overlooked or ignored. My formative school years in Louisiana taught me less than my grandfather’s kind and intelligent methods of persuasion and passing along important leadership lessons.
Reading of the news anywhere in the world today we find that senior leaders have ignored some important and obvious problems. For example, in the United States the social security system is headed to disaster yet little is being done to head it off and the transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) are in a state of disrepair. Yet the work necessary is being delayed for a variety of reasons. One politician commented that “we [politicians] are notorious for ignoring the big elephant in the room.”
As a senior military engineer officer I spoke up early and often about the non-engineering degreed college graduates coming into the U.S. Army and not having the proper educational background to be a first-rate army engineer. Many senior leaders said openly that I was exaggerating but through persistence in networking and many presentations to senior Corps of Engineers’ leaders, we were able to get the requirements to the Engineer branch changed.1
Someone once said that “Nothing is as invisible as the obvious” and how true that rings. Leadership is complex, difficult, and unpredictable but it always involves getting to the heart of a problem quickly and solving it. That is why my grandfather wanted me to admit to burning down his fields and help him replant the cotton.
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- Persistence pays off but it was a small group of folks who fought the daily battles to get our superiors to never let go of the issue until it was solved. Today, a newly commissioned U.S. Army Engineer officer is 90 percent more likely to have an engineering or hard science four-year degree, while 10 years ago it was less than 5 percent.