Recently, the words emerged from the far recesses of my memory.
Exhausted, we had spent two weeks in the Mojave desert of Southern California training for the war to come. Daily temperatures had broken 110 degrees, and wearing a kevlar vest, flame retardant Nomex coveralls, and sitting next to a 400 horsepower diesel engine, I swear the heat topped 125. I drank 3 gallons of water a day.
We prepared for our final drive home through mostly easy terrain. Once back on base, we’d have quite a lot of work to do, but it would certainly be easier and less dangerous. Cleaning up, performing maintenance, organizing our gear, and then, the manna from heaven, loading up to go home. For the Marine in the field, the thought of home sustains him or her. So, when a Marine turns the final corner towards home, it becomes awfully tempting to focus on its comforts.
Just as that moment, Sergeant Sparks stepped to the fore. Amid the excitement, he delivered that pithy wisdom many Marines are known for. He commanded, “Don’t drop your pack.”
I cannot speak about combat missions, but in military training, one of the most dangerous moments occurs when soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines return to base. The attention lapses, things become sloppy, and people get hurt. So at that particular point in time, Sgt. Sparks admonished us in order that we arrive home safely. His point: focus until you finish, until you get all the way back.
In my professional life, I have invoked this wisdom numerous times. As a teacher and coach, I warned my students not to “drop their packs” until they had completed their last exam or they heard the final whistle sound. As a consultant, I have used this expression repeatedly as clients near their goals. Certainly, it’s good to celebrate the wins, especially after people on our teams have worked so hard. But, we still must remain vigilant and focused, for tomorrow our competition awaits to take us out. In business, as well as any military mission, complacency kills.
Recently, I helped an organization achieve an important goal. The details are not important, but we raised a significant amount of money and broke a record in doing so. We had formulated our strategy, decided on our tactics, and put the essential people in place to execute our plan. At times, many of us thought we could not do it, but in the end, the collective effort and energy worked.
After several high-fives and congratulatory emails, though, I remembered Sgt. Sparks, and I invoked his wisdom on our next call. I said, “Let’s celebrate the win briefly, but let’s not drop our packs. We have to keep going.” Some liked it. Others didn’t, but neither sentiment matters as much as the notion when we have our work to do, we cannot let up.
Not until we are all the way home.
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