Rat-a-ta-tat! No, that’s not it. Bang-bang-bang-bang. Nope, that’s not it either. But there is no English word that will do justice to the experience: 40 rifles being fired in quick succession, up one row and down the next, the sound and smell cutting through the still air. Canadian soldiers in dress uniform stand on the field of the main grandstand at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, participating in a feu de joie-a joyful firing. It’s in the same family as the 21-gun salute, albeit a less-noisy sibling.
The idea is to fire a line of rifles one after another, with no discernible pause between the shots: like setting off a string of firecrackers, with the reaction times of the people firing the weapons being the string that holds it together. It’s a precision manoeuvre, as you can imagine, relying for its effect on practiced implementation. Like synchronized swimming or dancing, but more so. Imagine dancers maintaining their routines with weapons firing next to their heads. These soldiers just take that small explosion as their cue to fire. They don’t jump — not even a little.
The event occasioning this joyful firing several years ago was the previous day’s change-of-command for the commander of the Army in Western Canada. I’ve usually left jobs with a lunch and a few hugs, and started them with even less fanfare, but soldiers live by ritual and when they go for the grander effect, they get it. The two rows provide a continuous stream of noise, with perfect hand-offs from one soldier to the next, one rifle to the next. It’s clear they’ve done this before.
The evidence of their experience doesn’t stop with the firing. As the shooters march off the field, other soldiers in drab green field uniforms come out to pick up the shell casings and any unexploded shells. Within the half-hour there will be much-loved, well-trained, high-priced horses leaping back and forth across this field — there must be no nasty surprises underhoof.
We’re sitting high in the stands in a corporate box and it’s a blue-sky day of the kind Alberta is famous for. As the soldiers police the field, we can see sunlight glinting off shell casings, here and there. Most are also readily visible at ground level and these are nabbed quickly. Some are evidently not so evident at ground level — one or two in particular glint slyly, taunting the soldiers as they walk by, oblivious.
An executive leans over.
Isn’t it odd, how easy it is for us to see them from up here?
He smiles. Knowing the man and how he thinks, I take his metaphorical point — how much easier it is to see what’s happening in an organization from the vantage point of the executive suite. I smile and nod because he’s an executive, not because he’s right.
As the soldiers have criss-crossed the field, they have picked up almost all the shell casings — casings we couldn’t see at all from where we were sitting. From our vantage point, only a tiny proportion was visible. If we had tried to direct this clean-up operation from the stands, we would have failed miserably.
It’s a common conceit — that our view improves as we move up an organization. It has just enough truth to be dangerous. We do get a broader vista, sometimes enabling us to see links between different parts of the organization. We do have access to a broader perspective, lifting us out of functional and departmental interests into more strategic objectives and financial issues.
But we lose something too. We lose our grasp of the day-to-day reality of making the product or delivering the service.
We lose the frontline contact with customers — cranky and satisfied alike.
We forget, if we ever knew, how much time it takes to do anything — formatting a document, writing software code, repairing a vehicle, clearing a runway — and how much longer to do it well.
We don’t think about how much effort it takes for people to work together, and how amazing it is that anything gets done at all.
Nothing is impossible
for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.
Finally, we forget that picking up shell casings and unexploded shells isn’t interesting work — it’s just important.
As an executive, even as a supervisor, it’s easy to come in at the last minute and see only what still needs to be done, not what has already been accomplished. It’s easy to see where the output doesn’t meet the organization’s objectives or standards. It’s easy to wonder what’s wrong with people, that they can’t see what seems obvious to us — that one last shell casing, glinting in the sun. We forget that they’ve already picked up a field-full of casings that we couldn’t see, and all in record time, holding schedule for those horses itching to get out there and jump.