cloud computing, business, and leadership

What an Old Soldier Can Teach Us About Employment


Elbert Hubbard’s clarion call to responsibility inspires me. He cites this Spanish-American War soldier, Rowan, known for his dependability in delivering a message to “Garcia”, never asking where he was or how to reach him. Hubbard exclaims:

By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, … do the thing.

Hornet on an ivy-bud

Hornet on an ivy-bud by wolfpix on flickr

Is it initiative, drive, responsibility, accountability, dependability, duty? Hubbard decries the lack of it as “slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work.”

I’m lucky to have rubbed shoulders with highly successful people, from billionaire serial entrepreneurs to famous computer scientists. I’ve seen three practices where, like Rowan, they are agents who act for themselves, rather than objects being acted upon.

1. “Will do.”

It’s a terse response that promises results and demands nothing. Think what we sometimes say. “Why?” It expresses doubt about the work. “What?” It displays incompetence. “How?” It’s a trick to foist some of the work back on the requester. Hubbard says if you get that response you’ll “smile very sweetly and say, ‘Never mind,’ and [do it] yourself.”

2. “I did.”

Taking initiative shows our commitment to duty. Sometimes we want to complete a task but stop as we wait for additional details or approvals. The most successful people I have seen take independent thought and initiative of their own. If their assignment doesn’t spell out a task, they research the steps or expand their skills to fill the gap. If there’s a hole in the specifications, they keep moving rather than wait.

Often it’s a misguided belief in our place, deferring to “designers”, “stakeholders”, or “product owners”. I wonder if that is a waste of human capital. When an org operates that way we seem to produce mediocre results because of bottlenecks in organization dependencies.

I am reminded of this scripture:

It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant… men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will… for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves… – Doctrine & Covenants 58: 26-29

I love it!

3. “I did more.”

I’m frustrated when told how to do something that I’m capable of doing, and perhaps better.  Nobody likes micromanagement. Turning that around, how pleased are our managers when we meet their needs better than expected, or better than they knew possible.

Doing it, doing more, and doing it better.

Letting Hubbard close:

My heart goes out to the man… who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, … or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets ‘laid off,’ nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village- in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such…


Author: Derrick Isaacson

Computer scientist. Distributed systems specialist. Stanford Cardinal. BYU Cougar. Dad. Cyclist, runner, and someday pilot.


  1. Great post, Derrick. I’d never read this before. Another great quote from the work: “If you work for a man, in Heaven’s name work for him. If he pays wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him, speak well of him, think well of him, and stand by him, and stand by the institution he represents. I think if I worked for a man, I would work for him. I would not work for him a part of his time, but all of his time. I would give an undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.”

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