As a brand new Lieutenant I was welcomed to my first battalion by a senior lieutenant named Ed who was getting ready to leave the unit. He had been there three years and was headed back to the states to get promoted and go to Captain School. (It wasn’t really called that, but most of my followers aren’t familiar with the Engineer Officer Advanced Course, and I though Captain School sounded cooler).

Ed was full of wisdom. And since he was older and wiser and I was (as my platoon sergeant so eloquently put it) still wet behind the ears, I listened intently.

He offered advice when I attempted to buy an extra large rucksack. “Why do you need that?” To carry more stuff in the field. “We’re a mechanized unit. You have a vehicle for that.” I know, but we may need to dismount and walk a ways. “If you walk more than 300 yards you should fire your driver.” Ed was good at pointing out the obvious stuff for me.

He offered me a perspective about West Pointers. This came about when I told him he didn’t seem like a typical West Pointer since he had such a great sense of humor. “Well, it’s the old bucket theory at play. You see, when you show up to West Point you have this sort of bucket that represents your personality. Some people show up and the bucket is kind of empty. Some show up and it’s almost full. Either way, West Point will top it off for you. Empty bucket people get a full dose of West Point personality. The rest of us just get a little.”

An informal assessment of my many West Point friends confirms this theory.

But the advice he gave me that stuck with me most is to never stop trying to make things better.

Ed told me the following parable:

A brand new lieutenant is charged to clear a road ahead of a battalion moving through a mountain pass. He is out front and everything is going well when he comes upon a large boulder blocking the road. On the boulder sits several sergeants, a couple of lieutenants and a captain. They are just sitting there.

The LT yells up at the crowd. “Hey! We gotta move this rock! We got a battalion coming through here!” Everyone on the rock just sits there, looking at the LT with knowing sympathy. “What are you guys doing? We need to get this rock off the road!” Nothing. Finally one of them says, “It’s no use, LT. We already tried to and it didn’t work.”

The LT is not deterred. After all, this is his mission and he needs to get it done, with or without these guys’ help. He leans into the rock and starts pushing. Unsurprisingly it doesn’t budge. “It’s no use LT, we already tried that.”

Well, maybe pushing isn’t the right direction. He grabs hold and starts pulling at it. Nothing. “We tried that, too, LT.”

The LT grabs a pry bar and starts looking for an angle to get at this thing. “We already tried that, too.”

“Well, we probably would have more success if you guys weren’t sitting on it.” “Doesn’t do any good, LT. Each of us pushed and pulled and pried but it won’t budge.”

By now the LT is getting tired from his efforts. One of the guys on the rock offers the LT a canteen. “LT, that seems like hard work. You need a break. Come on up here and have a drink of water.”

“As a matter of fact, I am pretty thirsty,” he admits, climbing up beside the kindly sergeant with the canteen.

Just as he tosses the canteen back another lieutenant rounds the bend, trying to find out what happened to the first LT.

“Hey! What are you doing? We need to get this rock of the road! There’s a whole battalion coming through here!”

The LT looks exhausted. “I know. But it won’t do any good. We already tried.”

Now I’m not sure why Ed chose to tell me that story, but it has stuck with me for the next 24 years, and I am sure I have told it dozens of times. I think Ed was just telling me that sometimes things are screwed up and that we should keep trying to make it better, even if we’re the only one. Like most parables, people take out of it what they want to.

Most recently I have seen it come up with respect to resisting change in an organization. I always figured the biggest resistance was from the guardians of the old system. Certainly there are those out there, but in many cases the biggest resistance comes from those that have tried in the past and have failed. They have seen dozens of naïve new leaders turn the corner to push, pull, and pry the obstacles to progress out of the way only to fall short of success and eventually join the cynical masses on the rock.

How might we overcome this pessimistic inertia? How do you convince the rock-sitting masses that progress can still be made if only they would get up and help? How do you inspire the frustrated and defeated?

I clearly don’t have all the answers (and every situation is different) but I think a few things are worth trying.

  • Find some small wins. Better yet, enlist some of the skeptics and help them change something they want fixed. Then do that again.
  • Celebrate every victory. Let people know when successful changes have made a positive difference. Sometimes you fix something and nobody notices.
  • When progress seems slow, keep people informed about what’s happening behind the scenes. If nothing visible is happening people assume nothing is happening.
  • Make sure leaders are on board. Nothing undermines an attempt to improve something than a subordinate leader rolling his eyes behind your back. If they are a leader and they are sitting on the rock you’re unlikely to get far. Co-opt them or send them away.
  • Make sure the thing you are doing is worth doing. A wise man once told me that you “never tear down a fence before you know why it was put up.” Changing things without knowing why things are the way they are is a recipe for disaster.

Ed seems to me to have been wise beyond his years. For starters, anytime you can tell a story that sticks with someone for the next 24 years you are probably on to something. If the parable helps more people put things in perspective, Ed can rest easy he did his job.

And if more leaders figure out how to motivate their rock-sitters, even better.

So when you are faced with whatever rock is in the way of making your place just a little better (and you should always try to improve things since it is “too easy to live hard”) you’ve got to think through how you’re going to get the rock-sitters moving, and you have to resist the temptation to join them on the rock. If what you are doing is worth it, believe it, and persevere. Then figure out how to help others believe in it too.

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