Leaders … the Pettifoggers are in Control

[May 9, 2018]  Not that long ago in what we called the old brown-boot army, there was a saying that if you couldn’t wrap it in red tape (aka bureaucracy), then it wasn’t worth two cents.  The implication was that the small stuff was important and leaders paid attention to detail … well, didn’t they?

Well, boys, I have some news for you; the pettifoggers are in control and you ain’t.  That’s what my Platoon Sergeant told me one afternoon when I was frustrated at ordering a heater for the Commander’s Jeep (M151A3).  Winter in West Germany was approaching and the heater didn’t work but I had to fill out several forms, justify it to the senior mechanic, and then write a memo (in DA format) to defend the purchase.  The heater cost $12.

Maybe the U.S. Army brass knew something I didn’t.  Or maybe, they wanted us not to do anything that required work on their part.  So much for an efficient army.  I’m glad we weren’t at war at the time.  This was 1974 and on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, President Nixon resigning from office, and a big drawdown in military forces.

I was new to the military and my lack of knowledge gave power to those who would quibble over minor things; like the heater I wanted for that jeep.  These folks may have meant well (they only following army regulations) but they were standing in my way of doing something that was so obviously the right thing, that only an idiot would have resisted.  But they did.

What I didn’t know was that the army had unwritten rules too.  Harry E. Teasley, Jr. came up with what he calls the Seven Rules of Bureaucracy.  According to Mr. Teasley, Rule #1 is “Maintain the problem at all costs! The problem is the basis of power, perks, privileges, and [job] security.”  I had no idea what I was getting into.  But it was those little pettifoggers that were getting my goat and there was nothing I could do about it as a lowly army Private.

Later in my career as a senior commissioned officer, I was one of several leaders who proposed a reduction in this dysfunction of excessive bureaucracy.  Thanks to many others, it helped and the problem was made better (although not solved).

I never got the heater for my Commander’s jeep but I did learn how to improvise.  I took a heater from a large 5-ton truck (that was deadlined) and rigged it to work in the jeep.  The pettifoggers thought they had me but I got the last word in.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

33 thoughts on “Leaders … the Pettifoggers are in Control

  1. Delf A. "Jelly" Bryce

    Well said, Brig Gen Satterfield. Most people have absolutely no clue this is going on. Why? Perhaps willful blindness or simple incompetance. Either way, not acceptable. As leaders, our job is to overcome such pettiness and educate those who are doing it.

  2. Tracey Brockman

    Pettifogger, now that is an old term I’ve not heard in a long long time. Perhaps young leaders can learn from the concepts that underly such terminology and gain something from it. Thank you Gen Satterfield for the humorous play on a serious topic.

  3. Jung-hoon Kim

    In my country we have same and they are difficult.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      I think this must be true of any country.

  4. Greg Heyman

    I think we all have had an unfortunate experience with these folks and Albert hits the nail on the head when he identifies their counterparts. Good work Albert. But never let them keep you down. As a leader we must stay focused on the tasks at hand.

  5. Albert Ayer

    Yes, it does appear that the “pettifoggers are in control.” I always referred to their counterparts as “gatekeepers” and they are just as bad. These people gain power by the little things they do in a bureaucracy and they know it. In my opinion, it takes a really small mind to be one of these people.

  6. Jerome Smith

    Long time reader, new commenter. Funny post today Mr. Satterfield. Thank you for a great start to my day.

  7. Ronny Fisher

    “Pettifoggers” Now I’ve not heard that term used in ages. My morning coffee almost got snorted out my nose when I read the title. Thanks for a great way to start my day.

  8. Yusaf from Texas

    Is this less or more of a problem today than in the past? I would argue that they are less of a problem. In my experience anyway. I was working in Austin Texas after getting out of High School. Everyone where I worked (can’t name it or they will know) was focused on details and seemed to have personal hangups about it. I never understood, hated the place, and was happy to leave.

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      Yusaf, I think you might be onto something. I would hope you are right about it being potentially less of a problem today.

    2. Jerome Smith

      I agree or maybe it’s just gone underground more.

  9. Joe Omerrod

    If you think this is bad in the business world, try the medical profession. Not the medically trained folks so much as those who are their helpers. THey often need to take a chill pill.

  10. Dennis Mathes

    Although this leadership post today has a bit of humor in it, there is a really serious problem with folks who are caught up too much (quibble?) into the small things that really important stuff doesn’t get done or gets done only after great difficulty.

  11. Andrew Dooley

    Good humor if you understand what Gen Satterfield is writing about.

  12. Jonathan B.

    Pettifogger actually has two definitions and I think we are onto the second one. Here from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:
    Definition of pettifogger
    1: a lawyer whose methods are petty, underhanded, or disreputable : shyster
    2: one given to quibbling over trifles

    1. Mark Evans

      Yep, now I understand where Gen Satterfield is going with this.

  13. Jerry Jones

    We run into these folks all the time. Be sure not to give them too much positive feedback or they will become a nightmare for you. Remember that there is little you can do about them. I don’t know if it’s a mindset to be this way (focusing on the small stuff) or what, but it matters little. Watch out for them and beward.

  14. Max Foster

    Good comment Army Captain. I found the same wherever I worked, there was always someone who had a hangup about the small things. Unfortunately for me these we also the people in charge. Yuck!

  15. Army Captain

    Been there, done that. These people are everywhere and perhaps they mean well but they are actually an impediment to getting most tasks done efficiently. Sometimes they just block anything that is needed and often we can’t do anything about it.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      The military has its share of folks like this, especially the US Air Force and Army.

  16. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Sounds like a lot of “little people” (those who’ve been there a long time but never got promoted) I knew when I started out as a file clerk. These were the folks that the small things mattered more than the big stuff because they had control over the little things and thus control over you.

  17. Eddie Ray Anderson, Jr.

    I laughed when I read your comments on pettifoggers this morning. Most people nowadays don’t even know who or what they are.

    1. Joey Holmes

      Never heard of this before. Cheers from downunder.

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