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The Honor in Bureaucracy

hq“It would be my honor.” I’m not sure when I first started saying that as an answer to requests, but it has become a sort of habit.  Though I never say it if, in fact, I don’t mean it; meaning it has become the norm and not the exception because when people think of me for whatever reason, I consider it an honor – so I mean it a lot.  The responses I get are what you would expect; everything from “thanks” to “the honor is mine”. But recently, in one of those key occasions when the connection was truly an honor for me, I received a “the honor is mine” with one singularly disturbing qualifier:  The exact response – from a well respected person at the headquarters office – was, “I am just a faceless bureaucrat. The honor is mine.”  In saying so, he meant to imply (or did whether he meant to or not) that his work, simply because it is done at the higher management levels, is less honorable than mine. I disagree – completely.

In my organization, as in most, there is a separation between those who “do” and those who “regulate”.  I’d bet one could hardly find a headquarters office anywhere in the world that isn’t held in at least mild contempt by the people not at headquarters. Their ability to hand out edicts that affect the daily lives of those outside the halls of power often come without the explanations we think we deserve.  Holding meetings in break rooms and back offices , we “front liners” get drawn into the easy arguments of dismissal:  “They just don’t get what’s going on in the field.” one will say.  “They’ve forgotten what its like.” complains another.  And as I spoke of in my previous post (The Opposite of Mentoring), this trash talk about group within the organization has a negative impact; the cost of which is the undeserved feeling that a job at headquarters is something less than a job anywhere else.

Some (a rare few) enterprises work well without any central control or oversight, and I am a huge fan of flattening organizational charts to their squattiest level possible, but the value of the 360 view is undeniable.  The consideration of everything, not just the immediate, but its impact on the organization as a whole is necessary.  It is vital. And, it can only be done – or rather is best done – by bringing a bunch of smart people together to lend their knowledge to the common purposes of the organization.  Those of us in the field (doing the “real” work) need those considerations, and we need someone else to do it – we are too busy; we are focusing on the immediate, the now, the customer, the business at hand.  I, for one, have always been thankful for all the things that someone else had to think about to make my job easier or safer or better. 

The time I have because someone else is taking care of well – everything else – adds up to more time to train, more time to prepare, more time to operate.  It was someone at headquarters that researched the gear I use (I never worry about that), it was someone at headquarters that worked out the legalities of any actions I might take (I don’t worry about that), it was a bureaucrat that made sure I had funding for the training I’ve received.  That bureaucrat is a necessary and vital part of the organization and no less important a link in the chain of my work (ocean rescue) as any other.  That bureaucrat may very well be faceless to many – but his position and work is no less honorable than any other  – especially mine.

Now, I am not such a cheerleader that I believe that my own (or any other) “home office” is the model of efficiency.  Nor do I believe that it (or they) always makes good decisions on behalf of the operators in the field.   But what I do believe is that it is hard to see the big picture when you are in it.  It is almost impossible to do the job, and keep an eye on the ripple effects of doing the job.  We – the operators, line workers, and other pointy end of the spear types – need the high cover provided by someone on the balcony looking in all directions.  We need the accountants; we need the policy makers; we even need (hold on a second, I’m taking a deep breath) the lawyers.  And, one of the main things we need from them is their steadfast belief in themselves as vital to our success.  So a correction is in order, my dear headquarters friend: my job is only possible because you are there doing yours – the honor is most definitely mine.


disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

About the author

Mario Vittone Mario Vittone has eighteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, Lifelines, and Reader's Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, mission focus, and generational diversity.

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