What You Can Learn Celebrating with Your Subordinates

Bottom Line Up Front: The key to leading men, especially now, when there is so much false unity and superficiality between us, is to connect in a way they know is genuine. You must know yourself, trust yourself and connect without overstepping, which takes courage and control. Here’s a story to start you on your way.

The sound of helicopter blades faded into the distance while we stood in a snowy field with our German counterparts, very confused.

It was a cold, bright, sunny winter morning in the woods of Northern Germany in 1983. The helicopter had just left with our Assistant Division Commander and the German General. Our cavalry Troop—C Troop, 2/1 Cav—was the guest of our German partnership unit.

Our partnership unit was a German armored reconnaissance unit assigned to the German town of Schwanewede, not far from where we were in Osterholz-Scharmbeck.

I forget the unit designation but I do remember being impressed by them. Following the VIPs’ departure, our hosts asked our Staff Sergeants and below— most of our unit— to join the German Staff Sergeants and soldiers for training on machine gun ranges, demolition ranges, hand-grenade ranges and small arms ranges.

We had turned the units over to the NCOs and both sides’ generals had left. The men were training while we, the leaders on the American side, were confused. We had been invited by our German partnership unit to two full days of training before the Christmas break. We arrived that morning expecting hard work, hard training, little sleep, and good food. Until this moment all had gone according to the plan we understood.

But then they ushered us into a big, white tent and we saw the German soldiers waiting for us.

What exactly IS Temperance, anyway?

Temperance is balancing our appetites and desires, bearing in mind what’s appropriate to a given situation. This means deploying the virtue outward, taking into account those around us. So, it’s self-mastery that leads to consideration of others. But at AM we aren’t satisfied with the superficial. We demonstrate how these virtues help us with other men, so let’s dig deeper.  

The Temperate Man has learned to abstain from pleasures and moderate his appetites. He can forego short-term gain in favor of greater long-term gain. In investing money, he secures long term, steady returns rather than a quick big win. In real estate it’s securing property for long-term appreciation, not flipping. Wrap all that together, add a sense of what is appropriate in a given situation while striking a balance between what’s good for ourselves and what’s good for those around us, and you have Temperance.

It’s tricky stuff. Temperance comes from mastering our appetites so we appreciate the wants and needs of others. Let’s see how this plays out when you’re drinking with Germans in a tent in the woods.

And then they offered us trays of alcohol.

The German soldiers in the big white tent were there as waiters. Inside the tent were tables covered with white table cloths and standing attentively throughout the tent were German soldiers with trays. Each of the trays was covered with small glasses containing Apfelkorn (a golden, apple liqueur that tastes great and packs a punch), Peppermint Schnapps and larger glasses of beer.

Clearly, a party was about to begin and we were the invited guests. And boy, was there a lot of food. Warm bread, fresh cheese, meat and butter. And the presentation. All of this was provided in crisp, military fashion by hosts who were paying us very high compliments. We were honored and a little taken aback. I remember laughing and looking at my commander. He laughed and looked at the First Sergeant. The First Sergeant looked back.

We all exchanged sheepish grins. We felt the weight of the decision before us. What to do, what to do?

Our dilemma: No fraternization.

Regulations and customs in military units are structured so the unit can wage war or support the warfighter. Leaders apply the rules with varying degrees of severity depending on many factors, but military units must have structure, order and discipline to perform under duress in combat. Leaders and led are not friends, nor can they appear to be friends. Units cannot tolerate impropriety and shouldn’t tolerate the appearance of impropriety. If soldiers think they can manipulate their leaders or that their leaders play favorites, this belief spreads like a cancer. It’s called fraternization and means personal relationships are superseding military relationships. Fraternization can get men killed in combat because command lines get blurred and discipline suffers. It sounds serious and it is. That’s why it’s dangerous to drink with your troops.  If you start getting too close to your soldiers you let them down. If you allow relationships to get the better of you so that you cannot issue difficult orders, the soldiers ultimately pay the price. You have to be a little distant because you love and respect the men you may have to order into combat.

What’s the difference between the Science of Leadership and the Art of Leadership? Here’s a hint: We started to drink.

If you finish this post learning nothing more than this, it will be worth it: The science of anything is knowing the important rules, while the art of anything is knowing when to break which rules and how to break them. Hannibal knew the rules of logistics and when to break them. Picasso knew the rules of painting and when to break them. Napoleon knew the rules of war and when to break them. Learn the rules of leadership and when to break them. Learn when to break them with vigor, when gently.

Once our commander gave the green light, things started to roll pretty quickly. Remember, this was mid-morning and we knew we were not leaving until the next day. So, a little reluctantly, we began to drink politely. We started with the Apfelkorn, proceeded to the Schnapps and graduated to the beer. Germans, Americans, officers and NCOs drank and began to talk. The merry morning blended through a hazy lunch to the merry afternoon. We spoke German, we spoke English, we swapped stories. We asked each other difficult questions. We discussed World War II and joked about the Russians.

We sang and talked about women. We talked about East Germany and drank a little more.

And the men joined in.

The men—Germans and Americans together-- returned exhausted, cold and dirty from hard training to find their senior leadership locked in debate amid warm embraces, cheerful and clumsy. The Germans had lit a bonfire by this time and it was roaring. The men sized up the situation quickly and joined in. Soon we were all drinking together. Human emotions are impossible to measure, of course, but the hilarity, the camaraderie, the closeness, the sense of unity, all increased geometrically then exponentially. We were doing extraordinary things and many barriers had fallen and yes, we were breaking some rules.

Where was Temperance in this situation?

We were connecting across all lines. Officers to men, men to NCOs, officers to each other, men to men, Germans to Americans.  But nobody crossed the line. We all played by the rules and the rules are very clear: We are not friends. We are colleagues. We are comrades. We are brothers. We respect each other, we value each other and there may come a time when we confront death together. But we play by rules. And yet, we were breaking one of the most sacrosanct rules there is—don’t drink with your subordinates. And yet it was the intoxication that made authentic connection possible.

In this situation a very rigid structure had been provided for us and we were all very deeply inculcated with it. It was ground maneuver warfare culture, it was Army culture, both German and American. The structure was unit culture—our Cav Troop and the Germans’ armored reconnaissance unit’s culture. Our NCOs and theirs kept an eye on things. NCOs were careful, officers were careful and soldiers were careful. The Temperance of our shared culture was stronger than the intoxication of the alcohol, but the alcohol broke barriers and made the authentic connections possible.

The Germans made certain of the quality of the setting. The food and refreshments were present and plentiful. However, because we were forced by our culture to be temperate in how we let it all affect us, we benefitted from the event. I remember very clearly to this day sitting with soldiers, standing with soldiers, who were hanging on me but still calling me, “Sir,” and “Lieutenant McGurk,” and “the Platoon Leader” and I never called them by their first names. We all knew we were on solid ground. Nobody was behaving intemperately in spite of the alcohol. Our behavior was appropriate to the situation.

Call to Action: Today, as soon as possible, connect with a man in a way you know is genuine and respectful. Try this: Ask a question that demands a truthful answer. For example, ask a colleague in your office, “Are we winning?” That’s not a superficial question, though you can laugh about it. Be ready for many answers and respond quickly. You can also ask, “You going to crush it today?” Or, if you’re just warming up to this, say to a man as he exits the elevator, “Go forth and conquer.” If he’s worth respecting, he’ll smile, grateful for the rest of the day that you reached out and were courageous.

Now, go forth and conquer.