A LITTLE THING THAT MATTERS —
The scene was the US Army’s 5th General Hospital in Stuttgart — what was then — West Germany. I was a First Lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps and was serving as Officer of the Day, occupying, as usual, a small corner of a very crowded Emergency Room. It was a Saturday and we were way too busy with a rash of accidents and the usual variety of illnesses.
When I heard the sound of an unannounced helicopter descending toward our landing pad about 200 yards south of the hospital, I quickly glanced around for a spare medical corpsmen or two to dispatch to assist with whomever the chopper was about to deliver. Finding nobody not otherwise occupied, I took off on the run myself.
At the chopper, I found only the pilot and one semi-conscious soldier strapped firmly to a litter, with undetermined back and neck injuries from a parachuting accident. Lacking any obvious alternatives, the pilot and I grabbed the handles of the litter and carried the soldier back to the emergency room for examination. Shortly thereafter, one of our corpsmen — let’s call him James –informed me that he had just taken a phone call from a very angry Hospital Executive Officer (XO) demanding to see me in his office at once.
Arriving at the XO’s office, I was immediately subjected to a stern lecture on “how officers are never to carry litters”, accompanied by an admonition not to repeat the offense. My attempts to explain the lack of alternatives and the serious nature of the patient’s injuries proved fruitless, so I returned to my emergency room duties. Seeing my return and apparently having some notion of the message I had received from my superior, James approached me, smiled, and simply said “thanks for helping out sir”.
Funny how all these years later, those events remain so clear in my memory. All I had actually done was to pitch in at a time of need. And in the grand scheme of the events at the time, this small thing mattered. Perhaps it was the absurdity of the admonition that keeps the memory alive.
There are plenty of things that separate a manager from her or his subordinates, starting with the disparity in power. It is foolish for a manager to add to that separation by adopting an attitude that certain things are beneath their status or dignity. The reality is that managers and subordinates are essentially all in it together; they simply have different jobs to do. No manager succeeds without outstanding subordinate performance and bad managers are capable of undermining even the most dedicated and talented subordinate’s performance.
Moreover, in every workplace there exists a large quantity of what you might call basic, non-glamorous, maintenance work — drudge work for the cynical minded — that must be accomplished to keep the overall organization working smoothly. The new folks are often assigned these tasks whenever possible but over time, almost everybody ends up pitching in. The question is, how about the managers when necessity requires?
We have all experienced those managers who would not think of getting their hands dirty with the non-glamorous chores, and can recall how most of us feel about that. Conversely, there is simply something special about those managers who when necessary, willingly roll up their sleeves and lend a hand.
I am not talking about a manager’s doing it daily, nor am I suggesting that a manager routinely do the work of her or his subordinates. Rather, I am referring to those managers who, when sensing a need, pitch in no matter how menial the task. Believe me, it makes a big impression, demonstrates that the manager considers her or himself a member of the team, and role models the spirit of collective cooperation.
The act of pitching in usually speaks louder about teamwork and unity of purpose, than all the lofty speeches a manager may deliver. A little thing, yes, but it really matters and the best managers do it.