Kerrying On

Border Guards

Unintended consequences—we’ve all experienced them. You have a well-intended idea, give it a whirl, and then something unpleasant results. For instance, you’re trying to assist a colleague at work and you end up slowing things down. Or perhaps you help a friend write code and insert a bug into the program. Or perhaps you point out that a new employee is doing something wrong and he ends up getting knocked out and dragged feet first down a half-dozen stairs while his head bangs on the cement steps. You know, stuff like that.

It was 1971 and I had just been put in charge of the clothing locker located at the Coast Guard’s boot camp in Alameda, California. It was our team’s job to outfit new recruits with their uniforms. This would have been fairly easy had it not been for one tiny problem. We weren’t the first to see the recruits. By the time we began our work with them, they were frightened to death. They would stand stiff and zombie-like and be fitted poorly. A few weeks later, many would have to return to be refitted which was time-consuming and expensive. If only we could encourage recruits to relax—be less zombie, more Gumby.

So I suggested to my boss that we stop the traditional practice of forcing initiates to strip down and stand unclothed at the beginning of the fitting. From my boss’s reaction, you would have thought I had suggested that we have the recruits put on prom dresses and dance with velociraptors.

“Not stand naked?” my boss exclaimed. “Why, it’s tradition! If you want to build men, first you have to tear them down. What better way than through humiliation?”

“But it’s hard to measure and fit them accurately when they’re humiliated and nervous,” I explained. “What if we find a way to make the recruits laugh? You know, tell a joke or something.” So it became part of my job to “do something” to make the recruits laugh.

To get a feel for the humor quotient of the recruit audience we faced every week, consider what they did the five days before they marched into the clothing locker. From sunup to midnight, boot-pushers screamed at them nose-to-nose while calling them flattering nicknames like “maggot” and “puke.” Sometimes they were even marched into the estuary, rifles held over their heads, until someone nearly drowned.

As the next group of recruits dragged their terrified selves into the clothing locker, I was all set to tell a joke to get them to laugh, relax, forget their recent brush with death, and be easily measured. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself within minutes. As the platoon of sixty young men stood there sans clothing, I noticed that one of them was starting to put on his newly issued undershorts backwards. Seizing the moment, I pointed out that the fellow in question didn’t even know how to put on skivvies! Ha, ha, wasn’t that a real stitch!

Fifty-nine pairs of eyes darted to the singled-out trainee—as if staring at a prisoner climbing the gallows. The boot-pusher who had been training them ran over to the skivvy-confused recruit and pushed him so hard that the recruit fell backwards and knocked his head on the cement floor. He was out like a light. A few minutes later, when the medical team arrived, they saw that the injured party was “only a recruit,” so they grabbed the unconscious fellow by his feet, dragged him across the room and down the cement stairs—head thumping all the way.

Good intentions—bad outcome. I had wanted frightened initiates to relax but ended up putting a fellow in the infirmary. Fortunately, the young man quickly recovered and graduated with his unit, but the remaining guys in his platoon didn’t exactly relax. Watching their colleague’s head bounce down the stairs didn’t have the calming effect I was hoping for.

Our ultimate goal for changing the outfitting experience had been to turn the clothing locker into a safe haven. This was not simply for measurement purposes, but because none of us working there wanted to contribute to the harsh treatment that was central to recruit training. We had all experienced it, hated it, and hadn’t bought into the notion that recruits needed to be broken before they could be shaped into men. Pushing recruits to the limit—that was all okay—but abuse wasn’t.

We also knew we couldn’t change the entire boot camp experience by ourselves. Nevertheless, we figured we could at least create a refuge where individuals were treated respectfully. We could stand at the border between the clothing locker and the rest of the base, and do our best to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere.

Sadly, I didn’t know how to be a border guard. But for the next year I was determined to learn how. Over time, I discovered dozens of methods that allowed me to be an effective border guard. And eventually we were successful in creating a safe clothing locker.

Most of us assume the role of border guard more often than we might think. As parents, we refuse to embrace some of our own parents’ bad habits, which is good news for our kids. We do the same at work. We refuse to use guilt, threats, or looks of disgust to motivate. We filter out the bad and nurture the good.

But doing so isn’t easy. Border guards frequently question their efforts. Can they really make a difference without any formal authority or power? And what if lots of people around them act in unhealthy ways? Can they have an impact? What if their efforts to make improvements actually create problems?

The good news is, border guards make change possible. Organizations don’t change one morning when 1,200 people awake and—voilà—simultaneously start acting differently. Changes typically take place in small groups that are led by leaders (formal or informal) who play the role of border guard. In fact, that’s how the Coast Guard’s boot camp was eventually transformed into an organization that now leads the country in human performance technology.

As a final note—sometimes the borders you defend are small yet extraordinarily important. For instance, your ex-spouse or current life partner routinely chooses abuse over dialogue. Yet you refuse to respond in kind. You’re trying to create a haven for yourself and your children—not a toxic holding tank. And it’s hard. You don’t have control of others’ behaviors—just your own. You may feel hopeless and outnumbered.

Yet you still stand watch.

Fortunately, you aren’t alone and it isn’t hopeless. There are thousands of border guards out there who do their best to transform their homes, work groups, and companies into healthy harbors—and the world benefits from their tireless efforts. I heartily applaud those of you who have a vision of what you believe your family and work culture can and should be, the courage to defend it, and the savvy to make it happen. I congratulate you for standing at the border between your hopeful haven and the harmful world around you and boldly proclaim, “Not on my watch!”