Leadership / Teambuilding
Leadership and 100 Feet of Banana Split
When I was a field artillery platoon leader, I led the best platoon in the battalion by just about any measure you cared to choose. My platoon had more guys qualify expert on the gunner’s test than the other two batteries combined. We won best Fire Direction Center in the battalion. Out of 24 gun sections in the best section competition, we placed 1st, 2d, 5th, and 12th. We were damn good.
I had great NCOs and by then had learned enough to help them by fighting for resources (like training time, training land) and then getting out of their way for section-level and individual skills training.
One of the fun things Army units do are called Organization Days. This is a day set aside to bring the unit together and celebrate the organization. Typically, there are equipment layouts and demonstrations so families get to see what their soldiers actually do.
There are also competitions (three-legged races, tug-of-war, etc.) and lots and lots of food. Organization Days are a big deal and units (at least good units) put the same amount of planning and effort into them as a field problem or training exercise. We were a great battalion so the leadership was putting the resources into this.
As a lieutenant, I wasn’t part of the conceptualization for this shindig. I was one of the guys on the execution end. I don’t know who, but some ten-pound brain came up with the brilliant idea of having a 100’ banana split. When you’re successful and when you’re a little cocky (I was), sometimes there are those who want to see you stumble or maybe fall of your pedestal. I’m not saying this was the case but it kind of felt like it at the time.
My battery commander, a captain, called the officers and senior NCOs in to give us the laydown for the big event. Each platoon in the battalion had been given charge of a major portion. As Captain Dalen laid them out, mine was last.
He had a funny look on his face as he dropped the banana split bomb on me. I think it’s funny now but at the time I was . . . nonplussed. I didn’t know what to think at first. Then I was angry. I snapped at my boss that we were warfighters, our job was to reign death and destruction down on the enemies of our country, we weren’t soda jerks!
He snarled back, “You’re right, you are those things. You’re also soldiers in the United States Army and you follow orders!” Note to self: don’t yell at the boss anymore; it makes him cranky.
Then suspecting someone wanted to set me up for failure (I was a little paranoid back in the day), I got determined.
I huddled up with my platoon sergeant, a guy from New Bedford, Mass with about 14–15 years in the Army. Some artists use paint, others use clay, but all the great ones find the material for their genius. For Sergeant First Class Silvia, his preferred medium was profanity. He’s the only person I ever met who could use an F-bomb as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, exclamation — all in a single paragraph. He probably used it as a conjunction but I wasn’t smart enough to realize it. The beauty of it was you knew what he was talking about!
He and I discussed it for about 15 minutes (note to self: repaint the office cause the “discussion” peeled the paint off the walls) and put together an initial plan. We pulled the troops in and laid it on them: We were assigned to host a 100' banana split. My guys’ jaws dropped open. There was a pretty good round of additional cussing. I stood there and grinned at them.
After we got the whining and crying out of the way, we got to work. We had no idea how to do it but we started figuring it out. One of my section chiefs suggested we use a piece of gutter instead of individual dishes. Someone else brought up how bananas start turning brown after you slice them.
We identified the problems and then we solved them. Every one of them. Each section had assigned tasks and made their own plans to achieve them. We had backbriefs and I had to brief my plan to my boss. Evidently, this was to be the pièce de resistance of the whole day so I ended up briefing the battalion commander and his staff as well.
The commander loved it. His eyes lit up and his face nearly disappeared in a huge smile. By then my resentment had melted away and I started to appreciate the real power of teamwork and leadership. It was evident in his words and expression he’d already learned this and was delighted to see it blossoming in his subordinates.
We procured 100' of brand-new aluminum gutter and cleaned it well. We calculated the average length of a banana to determine how many we needed. We figured out how many gallons of ice cream we needed, how many bottles of toppings, how many cans of whip cream. Then we made a plan to execute slicing the bananas, scooping ice cream, pouring on toppings, and applying whip cream so that each child had a fresh banana split to dig into. Did I mention this was August in central Germany? It was hot. And humid. Then we did it.
Sadly, I don’t have a picture except in my mind’s eye, but I can see about 100 kids lined up and tearing into 100’ of banana split simultaneously. And I can see my soldiers’ faces beaming with pride. And I can see my NCOs shaking their head in a mixture of disbelief and pride.
That’s the day I learned a well-trained organization with good leadership can do some amazing things, even when it’s way out of their comfort zone.