When going through my father’s World War II keepsakes I found a stack of letters alongside a painted coconut and a bolo knife from the Philippines. George Potts was in the 96th Infantry Division on Leyte. The letters were sent to my mother, Vivian, in the dark days at the beginning of the war. He lived to become a great father and I’m glad he did, or someone else might be writing this.
Dad wrote that in his Army training he learned four things that could help him survive: (1) Salute everyone and let them sort it out, (2) Never break into a chow line, (3) Don’t reveal you have special talents, and (4) Avoid causing disturbances for which you could be blamed.
There’s something about military humor that transcends tragedy and lifts us up. Humor rebalances our lives and helps us laugh away our fears. Dad loved the Army (not the war) but wanted to return to a quiet life. He became a paint salesman and said his wartime experiences helped make him a better man and better at business. In keeping with that line of thinking, what can we derive from these four survival skills that can help us with business relations?
- Salute everyone and let them sort it out
In the military, you can see someone’s rank on their uniform and you know to whom you should show respect with a salute. In business, it’s not so clear. We’ve all seen businesspeople suck up to bosses and key buyers and be condescending and rude to co-workers and staff. That’s not good long-term behavior. If you want to work for everyone’s success, you should give respect to everyone. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.
- Never break into a chow line
Nobody likes a line cutter. It’s not fair. In a chow line of hungry troops, they’ll remember you and get even when you least expect it. The same goes for business. If you do an end-run around someone to get an advantage, you may have scored a tactical win, but you’ve made a strategic enemy. That aggrieved person may not overtly do something against you, but in the hour when you need their help the most – you may not get it. And that’s an avoidable loss.
- Don’t reveal you have special talents
If they know in your military unit that you can do something special, like holding your hands steady with explosives, you run the risk of getting to do that all the time. It’s better to be modest about your talents and let others discover them. We’ve all heard businesspeople brag about their achievements, apparently feeling the need to demonstrate how much better they are than the rest of us. I’ve always admired the ones who are more modest and authentic – the people with patents in biophysics who are just one of the gang.
- Avoid causing disturbances for which you could be blamed
This is different than just keeping a low profile. In the military you want action, but you don’t want to call in artillery fire on your own position. That’s counterproductive and upsets those around you. In business, it’s much the same. You want action, especially more sales, but without unpleasant surprises. I believe the single most important thing you can do to improve internal business operations and gain more business with customers is to be easy to work with. No tricks. No drama. No incoming rounds.