The Issue: Sure, SBOs have to do long-term planning to build and maintain successful businesses, and they’d better be able to anticipate potentially damaging situations that develop over time: rising business costs, legal changes, unexpectedly deft moves by the competition—to name three. But some issues come at you from out of the blue, and with such speed and intensity that only instant analyses and lightning quick reflexes can save the day. In short, some worst-case business decisions require SBOs to think on their feet, making uncannily right calls on-the-spot, and then sweating it out; hoping for the best.
What I Think: Here’s an example of thinking on your feet, and though it happened in March 1965, when I was 19 and in Basic Training, the principle stands.
“What is Your Major Malfunction, Maggot?”
Early on Training Day #1, our 68 newly shorn heads braced for the next of many indignities, we were each assigned to one of four “Squads”—one for each of the four ranks we formed when marching. The shortest recruits were assigned to 1st Squad, the tallest to 4th Squad. At 6’2”, I was in 4th Squad, at the far right of the marching formation.
When they wanted to address the formation, our two instructors would call a halt, then shout: “Riiiight…FACE,” before ordering: “FIRST TWO DOWN!” –which meant the first two ranks facing the Instructors were to drop to one knee so the recruits in the second and third ranks could see and hear every precious word (as if from Above!).
So far, so good. But the first time we got the command: “First two down,” everyone in the first two ranks facing the instructors instantly dropped to one knee. Everyone, that is, but me! I was in the 4th Squad, and not yet understanding the reason for that command–and always expecting the unexpected–I instantly calculated:
- The instructors are trying to trip us up (which I knew was a common technique).
- Everyone else is falling for it.
- I’m right to remain standing.
So there I was: locked-in at attention, standing very tall and very much alone among two ranks of kneeling recruits! After a moment of stunned silence and a few murmurs of bemused anticipation from the 67 other recruits, both instructors stormed over and got tight in my face screaming: “WHAT IS YOUR MAJOR MALFUNCTION, MAGGOT?” (Actually, they both said a lot more than that; but this was 1965, remember, when profanity was still a central part of the training program!).
They thought I’d frozen stiff or was off my rocker, either of which could have been bad news for them…and me. I even caught them checking to see if I’d made fists out of my hands, still relaxed and correctly cupped along my trouser seams. But when I calmly but confidently barked back: “SIR, the command was, ‘First TWO down.’ This recruit is in the Fourth squad, SIR!” they both cooled down and backed off.
The Pay Off?
My not following the rest of the herd that morning might have seemed dumb, but thinking on my feet and doing what I thought was right soon paid off in a big way. Later that afternoon, I landed the top recruit leadership post and among many my other duties, was soon posting Guard rosters, assigning KP duty, and marching the formation to and from activities all over the base.
In fact, fast-thinking lead to my assignment to the most difficult recruit leadership position, under constant scrutiny from the instructors, and weighed down with a lot more work and responsibility than the average recruit. And although I did enjoy a few more freedoms than the other recruits, those privileges taught me valuable lessons in leadership responsibility.
A few weeks later, for example, I was ordered to select a dozen recruits to pull Kitchen Police (KP) duty at the base chow hall—which meant sentencing them to an exhausting 20-hour day. As the 12 recruits I named were about to be marched to the mess hall, one stepped forward complaining of not feeling well. I could have sent the detail off one man short, but that would have made for an even tougher day for the rest. So without checking with the instructors, I instructed the recruit to report for Sick Call that morning, and took his place in the KP detail.
KP was as every bit as hard and unpleasant as expected, but I was pleased with the example I’d set for the other recruits (and it didn’t matter if that recruit was faking illness to get out of such lousy duty).
The value of quick thinking and continued self-assurance was further validated several weeks later when an agitated senior instructor, SSgt. Karchman, demanded to know who among the other recruits would do a better leadership job than I’d been doing. After thinking it over a moment, I replied: “No one, Sir.”
I knew I’d once again made the right call, and would be holding on to that job for the remaining weeks of recruit training. And that‘s exactly what happened.
What Do You Think?
How many of you have had one or a series of business decisions made under pressure pay off as well as that? Would you do the same things again? We’d like to hear from you, so please: SOUND OFF!
Your comments are welcome.
Bill Willard is a freelance writer in Clearwater FL. He has been a high-impact writer and editor for over 30 years. In addition to his byline pieces, Bill’s beat includes ghostwriting and editing for businesses of all types and sizes, professional practitioners and individuals, and is a TFE Contributing Author. Visit his web site or contact him at email@example.com.
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