King of the Hill

by Jake Block

A hot summer day in the 1950’s, standing on the top of the sand pile at Baur Brothers construction. This is the first time I’d made it to the top, and managed to dislodge the King of the Hill. George Choate was a head taller than I, but I managed to get him off balance and cheered as he tumbled, head over heals to the bottom of the sand pile. It was Saturday, and the construction supply site was closed, or someone would have chased us away by now. Shirts off, dirty and sweaty, we made a hell of a lot of noise, and there were a lot of tools, boards and sharp things around that could injure us, so on a working day, we’d have been gone long ago. The Kaiser brothers charged from my right and I dodged Dennis, then swung Robert into him, and they both rolled to the bottom of the hill. Nick Hasenstab came at me from the front, and just as he came to chest level, I shoved him over backward and he muttered angrily as he slid down the sand pile. I raised my clenched fists above my head and roared in victory just as George Choate slammed into me from behind, sending me head first to my embarrassed doom, to the jeers and laughter of the others.

It’s a game for kids and of little importance, but it is meant to teach us a serious life lesson. Getting to the top isn’t easy, and staying at the top is hard, so pay attention and keep alert because someone IS coming to get you. In the kids game of King of the Hill, your weapons are brute strength and tenacity. Tenacity will still be needed in your life-game, but you’re also going to have to arm yourself with job knowledge, insight, cunning and a bit or treachery as well, because we know that all is fair in love and war, and any game of king of the hill, if played well, can feel like war, and you want to be the victor!

I’ve never been in a working position when some form of superiority and commensurate reward was not in the offing, and never was there a job that someone didn’t remind the others that “this is a team effort, and there is no I in team.” Find that person and you will know who your chief competitor will be. There is always an “I” in team, whether people choose to recognize the contribution of the individual to any team effort. The success of any team effort comes from the unspoken agreement of the members of any working group to share the benefits of successful completion in order to gain the maximum benefit from that work. Everyone within any working group KNOWS who the leader is, who the least capable member is, who can provide new ideas, and who is going to just plod along, doing whatever is needed to insure success. And it’s also true that within every group, there are also members who are, on some level, waiting for some scenario in which the “lead man” to fail, envisioning themselves the hero that will step up to the plate and save the day.

Not everyone can lead in every group. The military recognizes those who have shown proficiency within their skillsets with symbols of leadership and subordination. Officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted troops all know their place on “the team,” and know that it is not only the expectation, but the requirement that they advance, show competence and leadership qualities to succeed. Those who do are rewarded in such manners as are appropriate, from awards and decorations to promotion to the next higher grade within the ranking structure. But officer or enlisted, they all start at the bottom of their respective ladders.

I had a commander in the military who, upon receiving each new 2nd Lieutenant (the lowest of the officer ranks) said, “You’re a leader on paper, and that comes with the commission, but if you want to be SUCCESSFUL, look to those enlisted men around you, lower in grade, but experienced far beyond your experience level. Engage them, learn from them and thank them. They will not only make you look good as an officer, but they might just keep you alive when the shit hits the fan.” The wise 2nd Lieutenant took his advice.

I’ve seen the same advice being given to the lower grade troops when they were newly arrived on base, and when it was ME, I was smart enough to look around and see who the others went to when problems arose for advice and if HE was wise, he shared his knowledge and skills with those at the bottom of that hill, just beginning their climb to the top where eventually, they might just surpass his skill levels and respect within the group.

Perhaps the proudest day of my military career was the day there was a serious problem on the flight line and we were facing a cascading failure, where one group’s failure impacted the next, and the next, etc. I was leading one of the groups, when I was called to a snap conference in my commander’s office. When I got there, I sat at the conference table with my mouth shut as the officers and higher grade enlisted members talked about the problem. After a few moments, Major Brashaw asked, “Colonel Heal, do you have a suggestion?” Colonel Heal thought for a moment and said, “Throw Tech Sargeant Block at it. He’s come through for us before.” Major Brashaw asked, “Can you get us out of the weeds, Sargeant Block?”

My response was, “I’ve got this,” and I was out the door. I was going “up the hill” to determine where the blockage was and I was going to remove it. When I succeeded and things within our aircraft loading groups were moving well, and planes began to move, there was no “thank you Sarge, you saved us,” and no slap on the back in recognition, but I received my reward in the knowledge that I had done the job that I had been tasked with. And those around me knew who was indeed King of the Hill… at least for today. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?

One hill down and who knows how many more to go, because life is long, and it’s a game that you really have no choice in playing, if you want to remain viable and relevant in whatever world you travel. You’re either moving up the hill, or you’re moving down to start all over again. When you get knocked off the top of the hill in life, there’s a lot more at stake than personal pride. It’s nowhere near as much fun as the sandpile, but you don’t get nearly as much sand in your shorts on the way down the hill, either.

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