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Last week in this space, we talked about avoiding being a whiner when things get tough. You could call this a “part two” to that, because it still involves complaints. More specifically, if we accept that it’s inevitable that somewhere along the line, you’re going to complain (confession time: I sure did), there is an important rule to follow: Gripes go up, not down.
Pictured above is an excellent scene from what many would argue is the greatest war movie of all time, Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is leading his squad of Army Rangers through the french countryside several days after they stormed the beach at Normandy. He’s listening to them complain about the nature of the mission they’ve just received. The mouthiest of the bunch, Private Reiben, asks Miller why he never hears him gripe about anything. His answer is not only great character development, but an important lesson for leadership at any level:
“I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you…”
Miller even doubles down when Reiben asks, “What if I was a major?”
“Well in that case I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir…’ ” and so on.
It’s a sarcastic answer. His men know it’s sarcastic. Everyone watching the movie knows it’s sarcastic. It’s also a masterful exhibition of leadership.
The thing is, leadership isn’t about being a robot and solely using your troops as chess pieces to achieve an objective, because your troops aren’t robots, either. They have emotions and they may react unfavorably to bad news and difficult orders. Without coddling or bending the rules, a good leader has to read their subordinates and figure out what it is they need to hear in that moment.
However, one thing that a leader must never do in front of, or especially to those under their charge, is complain. Think about all the people you’ve seen as good leaders up to this point in your life: a manager at work, a captain of your team, a favorite teacher… The people that you want to follow may hear your complaints, and the best leaders solve legitimate problems you bring to them, but they’ll never complain about the work, or being treated unfairly, to you.
I’ve had plenty of experience with good leaders and bad. When the complaints come down the chain of command instead of moving up, it ultimately validates that: “Yes, this mission/ job sucks. Even our direct superior thinks so!” It’s an absolute killer of morale in any unit. Be the better person. Stay strong!
If you haven’t seen the movie, you absolutely should. If you have, watch this scene more closely. In my opinion, it’s one of the more underrated scenes of any military movie. Capt. Miller handles a potentially difficult situation with great composure and humor. He didn’t come down hard on Reiben; he allowed the “griping,” but he also didn’t validate it to the point of compromising the mission. This display of balance and judgement is the essence of leadership.
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- Martha Gellhorn: The woman who snuck into the D-Day invasion
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- Unrealistic war movies that still nail military life
- The 5 best military movies of the 1980s
Feature image: Dreamworks Pictures