In August 1944 Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII war correspondent, gave us a small glimpse of the horror of war as he described what it would be like when that war ended: “It will seem odd when at some given hour the shooting stops and everything suddenly changes again. It will be odd to drive down an unknown road without a little knot in your stomach; odd not to listen with animal-like alertness for the meaning of every distant sound; odd to have your spirit released from a perpetual weight that is compounded of fear and death and dirt and noise and anguish.” (Brave Men 1944). Eight months later Pyle died on just such an unknown road on a small Pacific island.
For those of us who have never experienced combat, words cannot vicariously set us down into the horror. We will never really know. Nonetheless, last week I read with profound despair that a young American Marine had been accidentally killed by other American soldiers–what the military terms friendly fire. Having to respond to such a grievous, heart-wrenching error compounds the travail these troops deal with daily.
After reading the story, I thought about it for a while until I realized that maybe friendly fire is not solely an ironic and dreaded aspect of war. A sort of fratricide also occurs in the business world, and while the tragedy is not as sudden and shocking as the combat death of one young American by another, it often ends in a different species of human loss as devastating to the victim and his/her family. Plus, its intent can in no way be considered “friendly.”
Recently I had the privilege of writing an introduction for the book Growth or Bust! Game Changing Secrets from a Leading Corporate Strategist, (Career Press, 2011), by my dear friend Mark Faust. “A company’s culture turns toxic,” I wrote, “when individuals expend their energies in trying to best the folks they should be working with, rather than using those energies to best the competition.” If you look into the guts of a company that starts to fail, you will often find that the individuals who have moved into leadership positions didn’t achieve this stature by beating the tar out of the other companies in that business sector; instead, to get there they laid waste to individuals within their organization.
A friend of mine, a West Point graduate who has transitioned into the private sector, calls these victorious combatants “PowerPoint Rangers”! He observes that in taking out the guys and gals they could have been working with to further corporate goals, they also cause a fair amount of “collateral damage.” They win out, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best—plus, the victor was often fighting for his/her own goals, not for the company’s, and that vicious truth carries its own delayed toxicity that seeps up slowly through the groundwater. When these fraternal wars start brewing in an organization, people are forced to take sides; those on the losing side may not survive. Not surprisingly, when the new General is called upon to lead the troops up the hill, they can even find that the battlefield lies within the metes and bounds of their own corporate meeting rooms.
I thank the Lord each morning for the men and women in our military because they defend our way of life sometimes by the greatest sacrifice imaginable. I have learned much from reading about their principled lives. Whatever type of organization you are in there is a lot to learn, as well, about how different organizations define career success. Pay attention! You don’t want to be surprised some ordinary Wednesday afternoon to discover that “career success” in your company requires of you to put up with or to engage actively in “friendly fire.”