When I was in the military I was sent out on maneuvers with the rest of the troops. Mind you, I was in a rear area as I was a legal clerk. When I questioned my superior officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for sending a legal clerk out on maneuvers with a mechanized infantry unit his response was simply “to keep one of the company commanders from convening a court martial in the field.” At the time I remember thinking it was ridiculous; and not just a little because I had no desire whatsoever to spend a month in the desert, even in a rear area. Sure enough, exactly what my commanding officer predicted happened. A company commander tried to convene a court martial for spurious reasons.
While I was busy trying to keep a company commander in line I had my first experience with a fool’s errand – It wasn’t me, fortunately. Instead it was a young lieutenant fresh out of school.
The young lieutenant (the “LT”) stopped by the radio tent one day. It was, as every day before it, a blisteringly hot day. One the NCO’s on duty that day was the supply sergeant – one of the two people my grand dad always said make friends with right away (the other being the mess sergeant). With a glint in his eye the supply sergeant called the LT over to the radio. In what we knew was an uncharacteristically nice voice, the sergeant asked the LT if he would be kind enough to go down to the motor pool and bring back a can of “track tension.” Being the obliging sort of fellow that he was, the young lieutenant made his way down to motor pool to fetch what all in the tent knew was a product that didn’t actually exist.
The lieutenant came back a bit wiser, and hotter than the midday desert sun.
But people like the LT aren’t the only ones who get sent on fool’s errands – people get sent on errands impossible to accomplish all the time. Such is the way business operates, at least in the U.S. We live in a country of top down management. As the LT could tell you, the military has to be top down; but business doesn’t. When this is the case, far too often people get sent on a “fool’s errand” with the end result being a great idea that is poorly executed. For me at least, the lesson to be learned here is that while no one may be indispensable, everyone has value.