Today I’d like to use this column to honor a select group of people out there who provide a critical role in society. These are the people who find themselves in a family, company, or community that routinely demonstrates unhealthy behaviors—and yet they’ve found a way to create a safe and healthier haven within these unhealthy domains. Instead of continuing the culture that’s being perpetuated all around them, they take responsibility for making changes and improving circumstances for those who depend on them. The buck stops with them.
I first learned the value of this role in my days in the United States Coast Guard.
In 1971 I found myself in charge of the Coast Guard’s west-coast clothing locker. As a newly graduated officer I was assigned to lead the team that measured and outfitted enlisted recruits with white Dixie cup hats, bell-bottom sailor outfits, cool looking pea coats, and the like. By the time the recruits left our domain, they would be fully fitted for whatever the U.S. inland waterways and international seaways had to offer.
Before we saw the recruits, they would arrive at boot camp where they were given baggy army fatigues to wear while they were harangued and emotionally abused for a week. During this first seven days they were mistreated in almost every way imaginable. For instance, they’d be awakened at 2 A.M. and forced to shave their face with their belt buckle while looking at their reflection in their metal locker. Then they’d be asked to drag massive chains around until someone passed out. Some days the recruits would be marched straight into the estuary holding their rifles over their heads where they’d be forced to slog along until someone would nearly drown.
Of course, the real agenda of the first week was to get those who were going to quit the Coast Guard to quit before they showed up at the clothing locker and we fit them with expensive uniforms. No use wasting money on people who were just going to take the clothing home and sell it. So the boot-pushers worked extra hard at haranguing and humiliating the troops the week before they showed up at our door.
My first day at work I watched the clothing locker operation unfold. The troops marched in wearing their army fatigues, and marched out ten hours later out wearing their Coast Guard uniforms. The only thing was, the sorry looking bunch looked more frightened, exhausted, and cowed than any group of humans I’d ever encountered.
The support staff members who worked the locker every day didn’t like the abuse that had gone on any more than I did, so they did their best to treat every new recruit with kindness and respect. But the beleaguered troops never dropped their guard. Not for a moment. No amount of decency on our part could undo the utter terror that now consumed each newcomer’s every waking moment. Besides, as we encouraged people to calm down, standing within a few brisk steps of each recruit stood the fellow who had been abusing him for an entire week. As long as he was in the room, nothing was going to change.
But that didn’t keep us from trying. Each week we’d do something new to help set the young men at ease so we could readily measure them, but nothing overcame the sheer terror the recruits carried.
Once I stumbled on an idea that seemed just too good not to work. If I could simply get recruits to laugh at a joke or two, surely it would go a long way toward encouraging the frightened fellows to settle down. So I decided to find something funny. One Monday morning after looking around for a minute or two, I noticed that one of the recruits had put his skivvies on backward. Somehow that seemed funny to me at the time, so I mentioned something to him about not knowing his front from his back.
In fact, everyone tensed up a bit more as they snuck a quick glance at their trainer. No sooner had I chided the poor recruit than the petty officer who had been training the company decided that this truly egregious error deserved his special attention. How could America possibly prepare for the oncoming onslaught of the communist hoards while wearing their undershorts backward? Oh no, this kind of sloppy behavior needed to be nipped in the bud. So the boot-pusher quickly stepped up to the recruit who was now completely terrified in anticipation of the punishment that was sure to follow.
After thrusting his grizzled face to a point about a millimeter from the recruit’s mug, the angry trainer shouted, “You’ve embarrassed me in front of an officer and a gentleman and I won’t have that!” In a thousand years I never would have expected what came next. After pronouncing his embarrassment, the petty officer in charge made a fist, reached back, and took a swing at the vulnerable recruit—knocking him to the cement floor where he hit his head with a sickening thud and then lay there unconscious.
Eventually several corpsmen attended to the fallen fellow and within an hour he was back being measured right along with his company mates. I, on the other hand, wasn’t doing so well. I had just put an innocent recruit in harm’s way because I had the audacity to believe that I could somehow act in a decent and human way in a world that was abrasive and violent—more so than I had imagined. I hadn’t helped the recruit and I most certainly hadn’t put anyone at ease. Nobody laughed, nobody relaxed, and our job of measuring people wasn’t made one bit easier.
It was at that moment I realized that if was if I was going be a “border guard,” keeping out the abuse routinely handed out by the wider and more noxious environment, I’d have to speak the language of both domains. For the next year I learned how to play the game the way that it was normally played. I learned how to survive in the world as it existed. But day by day I learned new ways to create the world I wanted.
For instance, I learned to give the boot-pusher a dollar and suggest that he leave his company in our care and go get a cup of coffee at the club. “Don’t worry,” I’d enthuse, “we’ll give you a call when we’re through.” Removing the primary source of terror went a long way toward helping the young men relax so we could then do our job of outfitting them. We could also more easily live up to our values of treating people with respect. In a similar vein, I learned that no matter how poorly I was treated when given an assignment or command, I could pass it down the chain of command in a far more respectful, caring, and involving way. When it came to insults and threats, I didn’t have to pay it forward.
Over time I discovered hundreds of methods that allowed me to survive in both worlds.
People play this role in corporation and family settings all the time. They create a healthy haven despite the far less healthy world around them. I know this because I frequently run into leaders who are truly admired by their direct reports, no matter how awful or repressive the broader organization they serve. You can always find a few individuals who have found a way to stick to their own values, despite the insane world about them.
So today I extend these noble folks my heartfelt congratulations for having the courage to stand at the border between their haven and the prickly, noxious world around them and boldly proclaim: “the buck stops here.”