There’s a Bruce Lee “quote” I seem to recall from <em>Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story</em>. Turns out, it’s a quote of Lao Tzu, or very similar to it.
Water is the softest thing. Yet it can penetrate mountains and earth.
My Chinese teacher used a similar phrase to encourage me after I improved my language scores slightly: 滴水穿石 － di shui chuan shi
It means “Dripping water penetrates stone.”
(Oh, you can see that clearly in the image. Well then.)
The intended meaning is clear: little by little, with constant effort, we make progress toward what might seem a difficult goal.
There’s wisdom in that, of course. Excellence and success aren’t often made of singular actions or short bursts of greatness. If they are born of an instant, it’s often because in that moment, we responded the way we do every day to the thousand pressures and stresses we face.
Yet there’s a darker side to the quote. When I think of the military’s loss of talented and intelligent officers and enlisted, this phrase comes to mind. In all the justifications I’ve heard my peers offer for why they do not wish to stay in, there’s rarely some defining moment or negative experience that drove them away from further service.
It’s dripping water cutting through stone.
Many of our soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines chafe under blanket policies restricting everyone’s activity in order to attempt to prevent the troublesome few from doing anything wrong. We have servicemembers who are old enough to bear arms in defense of our nation, putting in twelve hour shifts standing guard every day, ensuring security for our bases and resources. Yet they are not old enough or responsible enough to make their own decisions while off-duty; many fall under policies establishing curfew hours, restrictions on alcohol consumption, and required reporting of planned holiday travel down to the estimated number of hours and miles of driving each day.
All too often, instead of leaders, we get babysitters – who are themselves forced to “take action” by fear of the consequences of any sign of failure.
However, the burden of being treated like a nursery isn’t all that wears our service members down. A myriad of individually minor grievances contribute to the problem.
Every day, our “best and brightest” wake up to face a shower of priorities, trickling streams from several directions, all clamoring for attention. There’s a new computer-based training or CBT that the whole unit has to complete within the month. Everyone has to turn in updated copies of some form so that someone’s program looks up-to-date. Binders need new cover pages and spine markings so that they all match across the entire unit. Someone found a requirement in an obscure regulation and all the aircrew members are showing up overdue.
The form you turned in isn’t the most current version. The certificate you received for completing a training course doesn’t have the blank back side, so it’s not a valid form. We need you to log four events so that you show up as having all your events logged because if you don’t get all your events, it looks bad for us, and we refuse to look bad. Also go get your flu shot, because you show up “red” on the tracker. And finish your CBT for skills you’ll never use. Finally, I know you’re outprocessing for your next deployment, but we need you to complete the post-deployment survey from your trip a year ago, so you need to schedule an appointment for that.
Our organizations are often cumbersome and entrenched in old methods of management and mission accomplishment. The figurative ceilings are pocked with holes. Every day, our Armed Forces members rush to place buckets under each of these dripping streams of water, scrambling from one “top priority” to the next whenever it overflows. This can certainly be true in the civilian workforce as well.
It takes time, but water will cut through stone, just as frustration and mismanagement can eventually defeat even the greatest determination and optimism.
People talk about the military bleeding talent, and wonder how we can stop the bloodflow. Maybe the holes we most need to plug up are the ones dripping from the rooftop.