When the Grass is Cut, the Snakes will Show

By | December 12, 2018

[December 12, 2018]  Back in 2007, I was putting together a large military construction effort and working closely with a senior Colonel from the Australian Army.  One day we were talking about how military construction project secrets so quickly reached the newspapers.  In his typical Aussie approach he told me that when the grass is cut, the snakes will show.1

His point was that to discover who was giving out secrets; we needed to reduce the size of those who might be suspect.  In that way, it would be easier to find the real culprits.  Those who would do us harm for personal gain, he told me, like to hide among the innocent.

Our problems were about construction efforts that would telegraph our intent to the bad guys.  The exposing of classified upcoming offensive tactics would put our troops at risk, so we had to do something about it.  My favorite project was a major highway project that would allow a better logistics flow to combat forces.  We briefed it one day to General Petraeus and staff, the next day it was headlined in the New York Times.

When in combat or developing a new product or just wanting to keep prying eyes away, you will be looking for an advantage.  The best way is to keep your plans secret.  For the reason I mentioned, there will always be those who hide their motives and their behavior.  Senior leaders will be aware of this … but their difficult task is to uncover those who would do us harm.

The origin of “when the grass is cut, the snakes will show” is likely built on this challenge.  And it never goes away.  We are always looking to reduce risks in any human endeavor and while the specific techniques from doing so differ greatly, to reduce the field of exposure first is among the most common.

Our effort to construct a new highway in the Baghdad area was canceled.  It was just too much money, too slow, and our efforts became clear to the enemy.  General Petraeus changed his plans and drew upon another strategy that today we call the troop “surge.”  His new operational effort was highly successful.

By “cutting the grass” – reducing the size of those who knew of the new plan – we were able to keep most of the operational secrets from the enemy and the media.  Along the way, the “snakes” were exposed, several arrested, and many simply slithered away.

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  1. The origin of this phrase is probably Australian. I’m unclear on the history of phraseology, but it makes sense.  Anyone who might know, please send me a message via email or post it here.  Thanks.
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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.

20 thoughts on “When the Grass is Cut, the Snakes will Show

  1. Janna Faulkner

    Hey, General Satterfield. We hear so much these days about “snakes in the grass” so would you write something about a “hero” in the future? That would be welcomed by us all. 🙂

  2. Greg Heyman

    I find your stories about your military service to be interesting and, for me anyway, entertaining as well as a chance to learn something about leadership. I’m sure that I only get a small bit of info to help but every bit helps me be a better leader but, more importantly, to be a better person. Thank you Gen. Satterfield.

  3. Drew Dill

    Maybe it’s not Australian but British in origin. Who knows?

  4. Kenny Foster

    Sometimes even a broken clock is right and the idea that we need to ‘cut the grass’ to discover those who are disloyal, dishonest, or treacherous is only one way of many. Thanks for another great article from http://www.theleadermake.com.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      He He … one of my personal favorite rap artists!

  5. Eric Coda

    A snake in the grass is an idiom that extends back into antiquity. Where the idiom that extends to “cut the grass” comes from is probably also unknown but into antiquity.

  6. Willie Shrumburger

    A snake in the grass is an unethical person, someone who is harmful but who does not seem to be. A snake in the grass may be a sneaky person who appears harmless or even friendly but in fact, is treacherous. The term snake in the grass was first used by the poet Virgil in the third Eclogue is the line latet anguis in herba, which means “a snake lurks in the grass.” Around 1290, the phrase migrated to England as the Latin proverb cum totum fecisse putas, latet anguis in herba, which means “Though everything looks clean, a snake lurks in the grass.” When used as an adjective before a noun, the phrase is hyphenated as in snake-in-the-grass.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Thanks Willie. I agree and appreciate the history lesson.

  7. Darryl Sitterly

    Snake in the Grass … noun
    1. a treacherous person, especially one who feigns friendship.
    2. a concealed danger.

    1. Ed Berkmeister

      Yes, call them a hidden traitor, a concealed danger, etc. Either way, leaders should be wary of “snakes in the grass.” However, like the Australian colonel said, the best way to find them out is to “cut the grass.” Easy to say but difficult to accomplish.

    2. Anita

      Yes, we do need to be clear about the definitions here. Thanks Mr. Sitterly.

  8. Martin Shiell

    Snake in the grass:
    A treacherous person, as in “Ben secretly applied for the same job as his best friend; no one knew he was such a snake in the grass.” This metaphor for treachery, alluding to a poisonous snake concealed in tall grass, was used in 37 b.c. by the Roman poet Virgil ( latet anguis in herba). It was first recorded in English in 1696 as the title of a book by Charles Leslie.

  9. Lynn Pitts

    The best lessons are learned (or should I say re-learned) from stories and old sayings. People really haven’t changed much so articles like this are very helpful to understand. Leaders! Pay attention.

  10. Army Captain

    Never heard of this advice before. Thanks for wrapping an article around it.

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