[November 19, 2019] While watching the classic anti-war movie Paths of Glory (1957) this past Veterans Day got me to thinking about leaders who are in the trenches. I’m not thinking about those literally in the trenches of World War I, per se, but symbolically of leaders who do the day-to-day hard work with people at the level things are getting done.
Starring Kirk Douglas as French Colonel Dax, the basic story line is not uncommon. A group of people fail in their attempt to accomplish an impossible mission and punished for it, despite the group leader’s intervention. In this WWI drama, a unit commander (Col Dax) must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack. Several of Col Dax’s men are found guilty of cowardice and shot.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s movie is about the futility and irony of the war in the trenches of WWI. But it also tells another story. There are leadership positions where the “rubber meets the road;” the work is not glorious but hard and unpredictable. Soldiers fighting the enemy face-to-face, shop workers building and repairing vehicles, food service workers cooking and delivering food; this is the level where the real work is accomplished, or the mission fails.
Recently, I wrote about the camaraderie found in military units and the closeness that only those who have experienced it can explain.1 That camaraderie exists when people experience great challenges together. It certainly does not have to be in war but could be found in a community struck by a natural disaster, and they work together to recover. Or, camaraderie is in a group of friends shipwrecked on an island without food or water. These are the things that put us under immense pressure to overcome the challenges we face.
More often called “bonding,” the togetherness is where leadership in the trenches works. Leadership in the trenches is about getting the job done and doing it in person with everyone working in unison. Our duty is to leverage this closeness to get the mission done at the least cost (in money or lives). Doing this is hard. That is why I’m the first to say that leadership is complex, difficult, and uncertain and also why duty, honor, country, and courage are so important.
Looking back on my service in the U.S. military, I always wanted to be at the troop level where the soldiers were. I wanted to be around those young men and women who were building bridges and roads, those blowing up obstacles for the Infantry, and with the IED hunters. It was where the action was, and I was there. Someday, I hope, those I led will think back to those times and remember me as a leader in the trenches.