Thinking Small & Big: a Personal Journey

By | April 17, 2020

[April 17, 2020]  I was told by my second-grade teacher that I had a lot of bad habits that “needed fixin.”  Like all the other kids in the class, I was deathly afraid of her, so I just nodded my head in agreement.  Truth be told, I did have plenty of bad habits in school, like not studying, misbehaving at recess, and looking out the window during class.  Later in life as a soldier, I slowly came to the realization that thinking small was also a bad habit found in leaders.

“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.” – Donald Trump, U.S. President

In the run-up to the First Gulf War in early 1991, my unit was preparing for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Being part of a Combat Heavy Engineer unit, our initial mission was to prepare shelters for brigade and larger-sized units in the combat theater.  The Operations Officer outranked me and had proposed building one concrete bomb shelter that was about 10 x 10 feet.  I suggested building at several and all of them of wood, much larger, and with huge support columns.

As a Captain and new to the Engineer Branch (recently transferred from the Infantry), I knew it would be an uphill argument.  When the battalion commander agreed to the Operations Officer’s plan, I was not surprised.  The next day, our brigade commander visited and rejected that plan in favor of mine.  The reason, he said, was that we were not thinking big enough.  He taught me that thinking small was a bad habit that soldiers could not afford.

As I look back on those days, I believe even that plan was too small.  We needed to think even bigger.  But, given the rapid attack in that war, there was no need for shelters (we were thinking small).  I would not make that mistake again.  During the build-up for the Second Gulf War, which began in 2003, my Engineers were combat experienced, better trained, and had bigger ideas.

Our Engineer mission became supporting the mobile strike force by blasting holes in obstacle belts, spanning blown bridges, and throwing up large, temporary enemy holding camps.  We would do this with fast-moving wheeled light engineer equipment rather than heavy tracked vehicles.  This method gave us the mobility to move anywhere on the battlefield swiftly, assess the need of the combat force, and make adjustments in stride with other missions.  We could outmaneuver our heavier combat units because we were so light.

We were thinking bigger but still not big enough.  Before I retired in 2014, we changed our thinking again.  Our Engineer forces developed a pre-designed “package” of engineer support.  We could deliver a large engineer unit, with fuel and ammo, and 50 experienced Army Engineers anywhere in the world with less than 36 hours notice.  We could field more than 75 of these packages anywhere for any type of engineer support mission.  This new support had never been done before.  Finally, we were thinking big.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

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

22 thoughts on “Thinking Small & Big: a Personal Journey

  1. Darwin Lippe

    Excellent article. I might suggest that we think small because we are encouraged to do so and discouraged from thinking big.

  2. Sadako Red

    Here are some barriers to thinking big:
    Procrastination holds you back and pulls you away from moving forward in your life.
    Short-term thinking denies you the ability to see solutions that lie a few steps ahead.
    Negative thinking prevents you seeing things that are possible to do now and in the future.
    Making excuses focuses you on what you don’t want to do, be, have and achieve.
    Solving insignificant problems distracts you from what’s most important and from the BIGGER picture.
    Over-analyzing things waste time and energy on small matters that are of little significance.
    Seeking perfection forces you to dabble in things over and over again in an attempt to achieve the impossible.

    1. Dennis Mathes

      Great list Mr. Red. I’m happy to see you back on Gen. Satterfield’s blog site. I’m also hoping for another article by you in the near future.

      1. lydia

        I’m glad that Mr. Sadako Red has commented. Great articles he writes and I look forward to more of his wonderful, entertaining works.

  3. Joe Omerrod

    You must think big without any reservations and without any hesitation in order to contribute more, learn more, become more and stretch yourself and your own abilities beyond their current psychological limitations.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      I agree Otto. The one major factor that separates the most successful people from the rest begins with a single thought. This single thought — if cultivated — grows over time into the empowering habit of thinking big that eventually takes over this person’s psychology, and propels them towards the achievement of their goals and objectives.

    2. Mark Evans

      Yes, thinking big is a way of life. The first step towards becoming a big thinker involves incorporating the habit of thinking big into every aspect of your life. Think big, go big.

      1. Andrew Dooley

        If you don’t make it a good habit, thinking small will be a bad habit. Keep up the great work!!

  4. Yusaf from Texas

    Hi everyone, as most of you know who regularly read the forums section, that I’m a long-time reader of Gen. Satterfield’s blog. I do like what I see here. But I also see a slow change in the articles as they move more toward the personal and more inside the head of the author. This gives me a good sense of the maturity of these blog posts and the value they can provide. Thanks! 😊

  5. Lynn Pitts

    I’ve discovered that still in the US military that thinking big is still valued. At least this is so in the US Marines. What is also highly valued is thinking big and providing a way to accomplish those thoughts. To be a real leader, one must have vision as well as a workable plan to achieve that vision.

  6. Mikka Solarno

    I think this is also called thinking boldly. Many only look inside their own experiences (which are often too limited). By opening our eyes to see other options is one way but usually obtained thru mentorship since most of us are not that creative. Just a few of my thoughts.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Boldness, creativeness, or just plain thinking BIG is indeed a value character of leadership. Well written, Gen. Satterfield. I appreciate you sharing your journey of soldiering.

  7. Harry Donner

    This morning, I sat back with my coffee in one hand and dog at my feet (with a pet on the head) to read your leadership blog. Well done, I must say. I’ve also forwarded it to my friends who are hunkered down because of the pandemic. Thanks.

  8. Max Foster

    The point that we all think ‘small’ until we are pushed to think ‘big’ is a long-held problem in humans. Why this is, is unknown and you can tell by reading old philosophy as it’s addressed there too. I find that I too am a bit slow to pickup on the big picture and when problems arise, I often think of solutions that are just too small to matter. Good works here today, Gen. Satterfield. Keep these great stories coming our way.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Spot-on comment, especially related to leaders of all types, junior to senior. I’ve found the same thing while working. Too many of my bosses were thinking TACTICALLY when they should have been thinking big – STRATEGICALLY. That is a common problem everywhere.

    2. Len Jakosky

      Yes, I agree that most folks need to be pushed to think bigger. Another way to say it is that we need motivation to THINK, period.

      1. Kenny Foster

        Thinking is not what is any longer taught at our universities. In fact, I will propose that any real thinking is punished by the political leftist professors that now infect our institutions of higher learning. There is a sad state of affairs we have today. It will inevitably lead to a Soviet-like day to day existence where safety and security is more important than freedom.

        1. Doc Blackshear

          Well said, Kenny. We are no longer valued for being free thinkers.

  9. Randy Goodman

    Great story of thinking small and thinking big. Thanks for allowing us on your journey.

    1. JT Patterson

      Yeah Randy, exactly what I was going to write. This is another reason good people should come to this website, read the articles, and even make a comment now and again.

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