Monday, August 18, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: Sergeant Bob

In a small Italian town somewhere near Vicenza, Italy lives an old army sergeant. I'll never forget the first time I met him. My friend Tom and I would try to spend a day each week helping him doing yard work at his late mother's villa.

The first time I had this experience, Tom looked at me and said, "Come on, let's go see the old sergeant." We threw on some ratty clothes, grabbed a quick bite of that region's savory sausage we had in the fridge and were off.

If you've never known a crusty, proud, war-hardened army sergeant, which I had not at the time, then you, like me, would have had no idea what to expect. We got to the house before he showed up and stood there waiting for him. After ten minutes, Tom reassured me that he'd be there.

As if on cue, I saw a lumbering, solid looking man, approaching us at a mild pace down the sidewalk. When his face was in good eyeshot I noticed he had a grisly looking frown plastered onto a deep-creased, seemingly unalterable expression. He looked at the two young men in front of him and, without a word, turned on his axis to empty the mailbox flanking us.

"Mornin' Sarge," Tom said.

Profanity. Curt, matter of fact, not malicious but well-practiced, intentional profanity. He put his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker and turned to the house.

"Look at this mess," he muttered. More cursing. He opened the gate to his little fortress and stood by, his commanding posture telling us to move on through. I obeyed, absolutely fascinated and afraid.

The villa was a beautiful little two story with a small, gated yard around it. He walked up the steps to the porch, dropped his mail on a little table and unzipped his windbreaker, revealing a the words "U.S. ARMY" in bold on his sweater. I also noticed his sweatpants, which had the word "ARMY" running down his right leg. They stopped above his shoes, revealing his socks, at their comfortable length from years of combat boots reaching past his ankles. The combat boots were MIA, in there place a pair of white, well-used tennis shoes. He started in a grisly voice.

"Boys, today we're gonna go to these bushes and tear 'em out. We're gonna rip out all these weeds and we're going to rake up all that ____ and then... we're gonna plant some flowers."

Before I knew it, we had rakes and hoes in our hands and were working the yard. Sarge spat out comments about how terrible I was at raking, which I felt was a little brusque. But, in his defense, I was doing a pretty lousy job.

We spent many hours that year helping out in Sarge's yard. He had an affinity for American cigarettes and Union draft beer, which he always drank and made the same joke: "I only toast to the Union!" He had a friend, Boris we called him, who looked like an ace when he wore sunglasses, but spoke in pure dialect and was almost impossible to understand.

I learned more doing yard work with the old sergeant than I care to say. I know what I absorbed there will stick with me throughout my life

One of the more potent of these learning experiences happened when we got the best tongue lashing I've ever had in my life.

Sarge worked at the American Army base, and living there had certain benefits, particularly regarding American culture. On army bases you can find coveted items not available in European countries like root beer and peanut butter. When mailing letters and packages back to the United States customs are avoided and the cost is the same as sending mail between the continental states. Having a friend in the army base was usually awesome because they loved to flaunt their generosity with these American goods. In fact, Sarge always kept his fridge stocked with Root Beers and he'd use them to reward us for our help. But, unfortunately, wherever there are riches, there are leeches. I shamefully admit in this case I was found in league with the leech, a mistake I would never make again.

It all started when we were approached by our friend, Giuseppe, who had some family friends in the United States and he wanted to send them a Christmas package. He wanted to make sure his friends got some items in the package that probably would have either failed a customs inspection or been stolen in the mail. Knowing of our relationship with Sarge he asked if we would request him to send it through the base so it would reach the U.S. safely, cheaply and quickly. Mailing from a U.S. base, it turns out, costs the same as mailing from anywhere else in the continental 48. When we asked Sarge about it he said it would probably be alright. Probably. We conveyed the message and really didn't give much more thought to the matter.

The next time we showed up to work, Sarge was practically spitting. When we walked into the yard he turned and unloaded on us some of the worst language I've ever heard. He stared us squarely in the eyes, uncompromising and in complete control, and yelled.

Apparently, Giuseppe's son had showed up at the villa with a huge box for the mail, barged in on Sarge's while he had company he had over, handed off the box without so much as an introduction and left. Sarge stared after him, feeling used, unappreciated and embarrassed.

"I was humiliated in front of close friends who respect me," Sarge fumed. "I still sent the package out because I didn't want to embarrass you, but don't you ever..." Horrible language, horrible language, horrible language.

Needless to say, being vocally thrashed by a war-hardened army veteran left us shaken up and when he barked at us to get the rakes so we could all start on the yard we fetched them somberly. My eyes were glued to the leaves on the ground. I had never used a pile of stray leaves as a security blanket before.

However, to our surprise, the old Sergeant was raking leaves right there next to us and, within five minutes, started with his usual jokes, his surprising, goofy laugh echoing through the yard. In fact, I almost dropped my rake in surprise when I saw Sarge had my friend Tom in a tight side hug. He had never hugged us before.

Later he showed us some of his favorite trinkets, collected through the years. He laughed and told us some great stories about his time in the army. He even opened up and shared some of his deeper beliefs about God and life.

We quietly walked home and thought long and hard about what happened. Somehow we felt closer to the Old Sergeant than ever before, even though he seemed so mad at us and made us feel terrible about our mistake.

Here's the takeaway.

Sarge had spent his career leading small units in the army. Leadership was in his bones. Dealing out correction was nothing new to him. He knew how to call young buffs out on their mistakes and make sure they never forgot when and how they were wrong. But, like most great leaders, he had a great capacity to love those in his stewardship. The correction he dished out was just that: medicine to fix a problem.

What he did next was the important part. All of us one day will have to correct someone else, sometimes harshly and decisively. It's the right thing to do when we are wronged. Sarge's secret to leadership is simple. After the discipline is done, a great leader shows more love and compassion than usual. It's called a greater outpouring of love.

This makes a lot of sense with a social theory called the Trust Bank. The theory states that every time you interact with someone you make deposits or withdrawals from your trust account with him or her. Need help moving houses? That will take a big withdrawal. Watch someone's kids while they're on vacation? Big deposit.

When we have to show people that they're doing something wrong it takes a major trust withdrawal. Without making a serious deposit afterwords, someone may think you wouldn't mind closing his or her account altogether, which usually isn't the case at all.

Try it out, next time you have to show that new guy at work he offended an important client, or you have to put a child in timeout, as soon as the discipline is done, show them an increased outpouring of sincere love. You might be amazed at how it turns a potentially awful situation into a bonding experience.

Heck, I still love the old Sarge more than ever.