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Lessons I Learned in the Army

A general's pep talk taught me that a leader can't lose sight of what it means to be a grunt.
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I didn't get much sleep when I was in the Israeli Army, even though I served during a brief period of peace between the end of heavy fighting in Lebanon and the beginning of the first intifada.

It was 1986. I was on a six-month infantry sergeant training course and dead tired. During basic training, our officers had been tough on us, but they were usually pretty good about letting us get at least six hours of sleep each night. For sergeant training, though, the officers would let us go to bed at around midnight, but we had to wake up each morning at 4. And somewhere in those four hours of rest, we each had to serve half an hour of guard duty. Worse, because we did not train on the Sabbath, we essentially drilled for 30 hours straight on Thursdays and Fridays. We were perpetually exhausted; we walked around like zombies during exercises--exercises that involved the use of live ammunition, no less--and the lack of sleep was starting to seriously impede our performance. People were upset, and it was more than just the usual soldier grumbling.

That's when, in the middle of some ridiculously difficult four-day exercise--which involved hiking, running, pretending to invade things, rolling around in the mud, and running up and down staircases without a minute of rest--the brigadier general stopped by. Officers of that rank in the Israeli Army played good cop, to make us feel better, while the sergeants who commanded us day to day played bad cop. So he was here to give us a pep talk. Over the course of the next few minutes, the brigadier general gave us a brilliant little speech on strategy that taught me more in five minutes than I've learned reading dozens of business books. It was about the concept of "fire and motion," the idea that you should alternate between attacking an enemy and moving forward to claim new territory. Later, when I worked at Microsoft, I saw that this was the perfect metaphor for how technology companies throw their competitors off guard and grab market share. The general's ideas on strategy were so interesting that I'm going to devote a whole column to them next month.

But for now, I want to talk more about the overall effect of the brigadier general's speech. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and he was no exception. Though his talk was well intentioned and interesting, most of us troops struggled to keep our heavy eyelids from closing. A quirk of army decorum was that we were allowed to stand up during one of these hot, outdoor lectures if it would help us stay awake. Throughout the speech, soldiers were popping up and down like gophers.

Finally, the speech drew to an end, and the general offered to answer any questions we may have had. "What problems are you having?" he asked. "I'm here to solve them for you."

Sir, very noble of you, sir.

At that point, one soldier toward the back of the crowd raised his hand. "We're not getting enough time to sleep during this exercise," he said. "We're getting about three hours a night. People are starting to make dangerous mistakes with live ammo because they're so groggy."

Israeli paratroopers don't pull punches.

"Ah!" the general smiled. "This is not a problem. You can always find time to sleep. For example, I sleep in the car on the way from place to place." He wasn't kidding, either. What he meant to say was that you can always find free time, and in your free time, you should feel free to take a nap, that that was OK by him. Pleased with his excellent answer, the general smiled and waved goodbye.

As you can imagine, the kindly effect he hoped to have did not come through. No, sir; actually, we can't find time to sleep, we thought. That's what we're telling you. We don't have free time, and we don't have drivers: We hike everywhere, with 40 pounds of gear on our backs. When you spill a little bit of coffee on your map, sir, and mistake it for a hill, that usually means an extra 20 kilometers of hiking for us. Long after the general drove off, we remained astonished that he was so cut off from the experience of the troops. Did he actually think we were exhausted because it never occurred to us to sleep in the back of our chauffeured cars?

As I've built a bootstrapped company, I've always kept the lesson of that speech in mind. This aloofness, this inability to understand the poor grunts in the field, also trips up many company founders. Forgetting how hard it is to be in the trenches every day is an easy trap to fall into. After several years of working days, nights, and weekends to build a company, after scrimping and saving and making a desk out of a door and two filing cabinets, business owners often forget that the employees they hired are not co-founders: They're employees. When you give them a door for a desk or ask them to work on weekends, they're not going to see it in the same way as you.

Which is fair enough. They didn't start the company. Even if you have been generous with passing out stock options, you're the one who might just end up with the helicopter and the tremendous beachfront mansion in the Hamptons. If things work out, they're going to get a nice cottage in the Berkshires and a down payment on their kids' college tuition.

The great employees will be devoted, sure, and it's completely reasonable to expect them to work their butts off. But unlike founders, employees are concerned about what their jobs are like today. They're not as excited about making sacrifices for the long run. So don't tell your star salespeople to take the bus and stay with relatives when they make that call in St. Louis, even though that's what you did when you started the company.

Slumming may have been almost fun for you as you daydreamed about your retirement on a yacht in St. Tropez or about how you would someday regale the grandkids with stories of your salad days. But that smart programmer you hired who built your website from the ground up? Don't you think she knows about the free gourmet meals at Google? (NASDAQ:GOOG)

I can always tell the founders who haven't figured this out yet, because they're disappointed in all their employees, firing good people left and right and constantly asking, "Why hasn't Joe (or Jane) gotten this work done yet? I could have finished it in one weekend!"

That brigadier general taught me one more lesson that day about the subtleties of leadership. He arrived in a fancy air-conditioned SUV. His uniform was suspiciously clean and--could it be?--ironed. I didn't know fatigues could be ironed. That served only to set him apart from us and underscore the sense that he lived in a totally different world.

Similarly, once a company gets off the ground, and a founder has a little bit of money in his pocket, he must keep in mind what it was like to be on a salary. No matter how well you pay your employees, their perspective on money will always be different than yours. You can't throw money around and expect them not to notice. I heard of one CEO, brought in to a start-up company as a "seasoned professional," who had already made his fortune. The company hadn't quite gotten off the ground yet, and everyone was being asked to make sacrifices and work long hours to get things started. Except the CEO. Like our general, he seemed to operate in an entirely different world. He lived in California, and the business was in New York, so he graced the office with his presence only a few days a week. But he told the staff to call him if anything came up. "Don't worry," he said, "I've got a phone by the pool!" To the rank and file, his midwinter tan became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the company. Imagine how angry they would have been on four hours' sleep.

Joel Spolsky is the co-founder and CEO of Fog Creek Software in New York City and the host of the popular Joel on Software blog.




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