Chain Of Command

I stopped the second lieutenant and asked him a question. I still don’t remember what it was. He answered with a nod and then went into the barracks office. I resumed my laps around the parade square. I think this was Fall 1989, maybe Spring 1990.

Finished the laps and went back into the training room. That’s what being a recruit was like – physical training and classroom learning. It happened only on the weekends and every other Thursday through the month (or maybe one Thursday a month?) but at the end,  I would be a full fledged private.

But before that, I had to manage “The Chain Of Command”. And I wish I meant the excellent two part episode from Star Trek: TNG.

“Cadet Rinne,” Sergeant Moore called out. He stood, hands gripping the edges of the lectern, his back to the blackboard. He looked practically maniacal with glee. “Come to the front of the classroom.”

I thought he chose to single me out because of my excellence.

I thought wrong.

I remember one other event with Sergeant Moore. He carried around a chunk of orange cheddar from a meal pack for the better part of the day to gleefully hand it to a trainee and tell them, “Here is some cheese to go with that whine.” He had that same look on his face when he called me up.

“Do you know what the chain of command is?” He asked.

“The succession of commanding officers from a superior to a subordinate through with command is exercised,” I answered. Or other some such official answer.

“No, cadet,” he said. “THIS is the chain of command.” And he trots out a milk crate with a coiled up, rusty chain inside. The kind of chain you only see in movies, the links as thick as my thumb. “Every year, one of you breaks the chain of command and we have to remind them what it’s all about.”

I didn’t say anything, but the look on my face spoke volumes. The cheese eating grin of his got only wider. He knew I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You stopped a second lef-tenant to ask him a question today,” the sergeant intoned. In Canada, you don’t say loo-tenant, you say lef-tenant. “Instead of speaking to your section leader. You wasted that second tef-tenant’s time, cadet. And I can’t let that happen ever again.”

The chain-laden milk crate ground across the floor when he pushed it towards me, leaving a trail of rust in its wake.

“You will carry this chain around with you for the whole day. You will bring it to class, bring it with you on PT. You will take it to bed with you and return it in the morning to this class. Your fellow trainees may offer to help but you may not ask for help. If you ask for help, you will get to spend another day being reminded of the importance of the chain of command.”

And I carried that big bastard of a crate around with me for the whole day and my fellow trainees did eventually offer me to help, but not before I was nearly crying with frustration. I realized then that the main job of training was to break you down so that they could build you back up again with the bits that survived. I have not forgot the lesson I learned that day and never fail to tell this story whenever someone mentions “the chain of command”.

So today, a manager coached me about how it’s as important to manage down as it is to manage up. He said a manager must tell their people what to do and at the same time have the confidence to speak up to your boss if you don’t agree with something (in a respectful manner). The lesson was a good one, and one I do passively, not actively. I thanked him for the advice.

“It’s like being in the military,” he explained. “It’s the chain of command.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Let me tell you about the chain of command. When I was in the Armed Forces Reserve, I stopped in the middle of a lap around the parade square to ask a second lef-tenant a question…..”

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