Years ago, my husband Cameron was a lowly Private First Class going through his initial military training. He’d spent two years going from training school to training school, staying at the same rank the whole time. After more than two years in the military, he was still a PFC – even though he’d been eligible for promotion for nine months.  He’d been asking, calling, trying to find out what he needed to do to get the military bureaucracy gears moving, but nothing ever came of it.

He was in a worse spot than most soldiers are, because he was a member of the National Guard instead of the regular Army. That meant that while he was assigned to a local, regular Army unit for each of his training schools, he still belonged to his National Guard unit back home – 1,000 miles away. The Guard unit was responsible for all of his pay, promotions, and orders – so Cameron had to communicate with them to get anything done.

But he couldn’t communicate with them. When a soldier – especially a lower-ranking enlisted guy – is in training school, he or she isn’t allowed to carry their cell phone on them. They have no time to send emails or make phone calls during regular class hours. Every single minute is booked up, monitored, and regulated by their drill sergeants. If a soldier needs anything done – from scheduling a doctors appointment to coordinating a promotion – he or she has to ask the drill sergeants to take care of it for them. And Cameron had been asking for months.

He’d been asking about a lot of things for months.  For example: this was all happening back when the Army was transitioning from the old green camo BDU uniforms to the new desert grey camo ACU uniforms. Cameron had been away from his unit for so long that he was still wearing the green BCUs he’d received in basic training – six months after all the other soldiers had their desert ACUs. He’d been asking his drill sergeants to contact his unit’s supply guy to send him new ones, but no one was making any progress.

It was like one, large, nightmarish game of telephone … with real telephones.

One day as he entered the chow hall, the drill sergeant stopped him and told him he wasn’t going to be eating with the rest of the trainees. Three of his Guard unit’s Sergeant Majors – the highest ranking enlisted soldiers in an Army unit – had come to the training school to see how their guys were doing. And they wanted to have dinner with Cameron and the other three men.  That’s part of all SGMs’ jobs – they’re supposed to monitor and advocate for the enlisted men under them to the officers who command the unit.  They’re all immensely capable, seasoned, and powerful men and women who take good care of their soldiers.

They’re also capable of docking your pay, ending your career, and making your life a living hell if you do something stupid. So junior enlisted guys are usually both awed by and scared sh*tless by SGMs.

So there was Cameron, eating dinner with the intimidating SGMs and three other terrified trainees, sticking out like a sore thumb in his sun-bleached green BDUs. The SGM sitting next to him looking at him. Cameron was getting nervous.

“How long have you been in the Army, PFC?” he finally asked.
“Twenty-seven months,” Cameron replied.
“What rank did you come in as?” the SGM continued.

The SGM looked him over very, very carefully. He was obviously taking Cameron’s measure, trying to decide what kind of soldier he was. Because there are only two reasons someone would still be a PFC twenty-seven whole months after basic training: either he was a screw-up who got demoted, or someone above him wasn’t doing their job.

So the SGM continued. “Why haven’t you put in for promotion?”
Cameron tried not to laugh. “I’ve been trying to. I started asking about it ten months ago, before I was even eligible. And I keep asking about it. But I can’t get any answers from the Drill Sergeants and can’t talk to anyone at the unit to get the ball rolling.”

“Why haven’t you talked to the unit?”
Cameron explained:
about the hours he was at class without a cell phone
about how the Guard unit’s offices were closed by the time he was out of class
about how he had to submit a request to the Drill Sergeants to make every phone call and schedule every appointment
about how the Drill Sergeants had a hundred other soldiers submitting requests for phone calls

The SGM thought about it. And then asked, “Why haven’t you spoken with the Guard liason here?” because every base has an officer whose sole job is helping National Guard soldiers communicate with their home units.

Cameron explained:
about how the liason was only available during his class hours.
about how he could only get out of class if he had an appointment.
about how the only way to get an appointment was to call the liason’s office.
about how  Cameron didn’t have access to a phone during class hours.
about how he had to submit a request to his Drill Sergeants to make the appointment for him.
about how the Drill Sergeants had a hundred other soldiers submitting requests for phone calls

about how the Drill Sergeants kept saying that they’d take care of it.

And when a Drill Sergeant says that, no soldier in his right mind presses further.

The SGM thought again, and then pulled out his notepad. “Spell your first name for me, PFC…”

Cameron did. The SGM put away his notebook. The conversation moved on, dinner ended, and the SGMs flew home that night. Cameron didn’t think much of it, other than to hope he wasn’t going to get in trouble for something.

The next day at lunch, a Drill Sergeant walked up to Cameron with a piece of paper. “Congratulations, Hartley. You’ve been promoted to Specialist.”

There they were – orders, signed at 0800 that morning, authorizing his promotion to SPC and his pay increase. The SGM had flown home and had Cameron’s promotion processed first thing when he got back into the office the next morning.

Months of stress and frustration were over like that.

Because someone with the authority and understanding to fix the problem found out about it and fixed it.

And – this is the most important part of the story – the SGM fixed Cameron’s problem immediately. He did it before he tried to fix the system that caused the problem in the first place.  The SGM was smart enough and experienced enough to know that he was looking at two related but different problems: a soldier who was frustrated and couldn’t get anyone to help with his promotion, and a broken system that needed fixing. The SGM fixed the most urgent problem first, before tackling the systemic problem.

And he did tackle it.  Later, that training school’s Drill Sergeants had to answer a lot of questions about why they were prioritizing their administrative work over their soldier’s requests for help.  Because that was the real cause of the whole problem — the Drill Sergeants had so many of their own urgent and important tasks to do every day that they kept putting off their soldier’s appointments and requests. They didn’t realize that those soldier’s requests represented the SOLDIER’s urgent and important tasks. They were so busy taking care of their unit that they didn’t have time to take care of their soldiers.

Or, as  G.K. Chesterton said: “It’s not that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

That’s the thing. Cameron’s problem wasn’t a particularly urgent or particularly important problem for the SGM’s himself – it didn’t really have any immediate effect on his job or life. It was not the sort of thing that would ever come to his attention, or that anyone below him would ever think to tell him about. Trust me – in a military battalion, there are bigger, life and death fish for leadership to fry.  But the SGM recognized that it WAS urgent and important for Cameron. Under all of the meetings and to do lists, he remembered that his real mission was taking care of his soldiers’ urgent and important needs so they could do their jobs.

Unlike the Drill Sergeants, the SGM recognized that this was a soldier under stress.
He recognized that Cameron was losing a few hundred bucks every month that he didn’t get his promotion, and he knew that that money means a lot when you’re only making $2,000 a month.
He recognized that if someone didn’t do something, the promotion wouldn’t happen for months – until Cameron finished his training school.
He recognized that every day Cameron waited for his promotion would delay all of his subsequent promotions.
He recognized that these are the sort of problems that make soldiers so frustrated that they start to hate the Army, start to doubt that their leadership cares about them – that make them they leave the Army at the first chance they get.
He recognized how much it would mean to a lowly PFC to have someone give a $#*! and do something about it.
He recognized all of that in an instant – and he knew he could solve the problem with one phone call and a couple of signatures.

So he did.

These SGMs were the smartest kind of leaders. They knew that the biggest problems for the average guy don’t even register on leadership’s radar – even though the leaders are usually the ones who can solve them. They knew that, unless they went out and asked questions, they would never find out what was really making their soldiers’ lives hell and their jobs hard.

And that’s the lesson for anyone in an organization, anyone with a little power or authority over other people – to see and recognize.

You have to recognize that only a fraction of information will make it through official channels to you.
You have to recognize that you will only hear about problems when they become so bad that they become urgent and important to you.
You have to recognize that what is urgent and important to you is not what is urgent or important to the people under you.
You have to recognize that the only reason a problem becomes big enough to come to your attention is because the system failed to take care of it when it was urgent and important to the people under you.
And you have care enough to observe, ask questions, and recognize problems before they get to that point.

In short – if you want to prevent more crises and solve more problems, you need to develop a little perspective and empathy for people at other levels of your organization.

Dig deeper. Ask questions.  Ask why a lot.  Ask questions until you understand what the problem is and how it happened, until you know enough to make things better for the person in the middle of it. That is the best kind of crisis management, because it is really crisis prevention.

Wondering how to start? In our next post, you’ll learn how one man fought corruption in his organization by sweeping floors and drinking tea with doormen. Really. It’s that simple. You can do it, too.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.