“A friend is one who walks in when others walk out”
Not too long ago I watched the HBO TV miniseries, The Pacific, produced by Tom Hanks. This is a companion piece to the widely acclaimed Band of Brothers. Both are moving and graphic accounts of the lives of those soldiers who fought and died protecting our freedoms in World War II.
Watching these true stories of a fast disappearing generation of heroes reminded me of aconcept my father often talked about. ”Foxhole Buddies” he used to say, are friends you make for life as a result of a shared significant emotional experience. At the end of each episode of The Pacific were short interviews with the actual men portrayed in the series. Hearing them speak about their comrades brought home the power of human bonds born out of a shared significant emotional experience. Many of those men stayed friends for the rest of their lives, even though they were from widely different social and economic backgrounds and regions of the country.
In many ways a successful marriage is a significant shared emotional experience. The shared experiences of raising children, building successful careers, learning how to make 1 + 1 = 3 is definitely not easy and certainly emotionally trying at times.
As I consult with senior executive teams on alignment and strategy execution I often step back and watch how they interact and relate with one another. As I observe them in meetings and working on business challenges together I rarely find many “foxhole buddies”. Too often they approach each other with invisible protective shields, careful not to let their emotions out or to let the other person “get too close”. And occasionally when the interactions are heated and emotions do erupt, there is a sense of embarrassment and then an awkward effort to bring things back to the rational and analytical ground they are comfortable with.
Business is not always rational and all issues cannot be solved with reason and logic!
Business is emotional. Business is a contact sport. It is hard work; it is sweaty and tedious, fast paced and sometimes even scary. Many of us in executive positions right now are deeply disturbed at the prospects for the global economy and even for our own future and wellbeing. It’s tough work out there building and guiding a company. Not unlike frightened soldiers advancing through a minefield, trying to find safe passage.
Now, more than ever we need foxhole buddies by our side.
So let’s get closer to each other, support each other, argue with each other, be honest with each other in order to find the best solutions for our business and for the welfare of our customers and employees.
A Business Example:
Over twenty years ago I made a foxhole buddy during a senior leadership team offsite. One of the senior program managers in this large aerospace and defence firm was not only extremely bright and capable, he was also extremely critical and condescending of his subordinates and peers. As one employee volunteered, “When Dick walks down the hall he leave dead bodies littered behind him!”. As the team was beginning to come together and find common ground for a team agenda, Dick was the naysayer, the outspoken devil’s advocate, challenging everything said.
Finally I walked over to Dick and said something like this. ”Would you like some appreciative and constructive feedback?” He knew he was trapped and said, yes. ”What I appreciate about you is your quick mind and your willingness to challenge ideas in order to find the best solution.” Naturally he puffed up with pride. I continued. ”And I believe you could be even more effective if you realized that you terrify your subordinates into not speaking up and you leave dead bodies all around when you engage with people.” Well, you can imagine his response. Total denial and a barrage of examples to prove me wrong. I nodded, looked him in the eye and said, “think about it”.
Two weeks later Dick and I had a great private conversation. Like a true leader he had thought about it, asked for input from his peers and a few subordinates, and realized the truth. He was a great thinker, an exceptional engineer, and a bully. Dick and I became foxhole buddies because he stuck it out and arrived at a valuable insight that was to carry him to become CEO of several large organizations.
Dick is now retired but I know I could call on him for just about anything. That’s the gift of foxhole buddies.
It might be time to rethink your relationships.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!