Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quiet Competence

 

Taz Venegas was a quiet guy, mostly. He had a great sense of humor and was well-liked, but few thought of him as a great leader among the officers in the squadron. Marines are a cult of leadership, and although I have joined in that cult and studied and discussed the topic ad nauseam all my adult life, I confess I still don’t know what qualities make a man a great leader.

We were in an A-6 squadron and it was the very early 1990s. Our squadron was designated to transition to the F/A-18D, and along with that change that we would no longer have the mission to deliver nuclear weapons. The Marines didn’t want nukes in any unit anymore, and the A-6 was one of the last methods left to use them. But before we got rid of our nukes, we had one last Nuclear Technical Proficiency Inspection (NTPI). Somehow Taz was tapped to be in charge, a choice that surprised most of us because the NTPI was an extremely high profile and very difficult inspection, and Taz was not among the favored sons among the air crew. Taz was a quiet guy.

Let me explain, briefly, what the NTPI is like. The inspectors look to make sure everyone involved with the nuke is properly trained, qualified, and medically ready. A comma in the wrong place in an administrative service record is a serious fault. A cracked lens on the cover of a hydraulic pressure gauge for a SATS loader (a kind of forklift of sorts for bombs) is a serious fault. Every little thing you can possibly imagine as being petty and unimportant is taken to the nth degree of seriousness, and that is not an exaggeration. Failing the NTPI will guarantee the squadron commander is relieved, and it’s not hard to fail the NTPI.

Normally, the officer put in charge of preparing for the NTPI is the most promising captain in the squadron. That officer will be given carte blanche to demand and get anything he needs to prepare. As the Maintenance Control Officer, I was tasked with supporting the NTPI by providing people, planes to practice loading, planes to fly practice bombing runs (dropping a nuke requires a different method of slinging the bomb, and I’ll allow any aviators to describe it in more detail), and providing parts, equipment, etc. Whenever the NTPI team needed anything, it was provided over everything else, flight schedule be damned.

As you can imagine, with such authority the NTPI officer normally created a lot of flailing around with last-minute requests, angry orders, threats to comply at the last second, and lots of confusion. This was true of every NTPI I had experienced or had witnessed from afar.

But Taz was named to be in charge this time. And Taz was a quiet guy. I liked Taz, as did everyone, and I enjoyed working with him, but I’d never seen him run a large project before. Taz started a bit nervous, but he jumped right in and identified all the requirements leading up to the inspection several months away, and published a schedule of what he needed and when he needed it. He had a solid plan and he stuck to his plan.

I took my part of his plan and gave him what he needed as requested, and never got a complaint. His people worked hard and accomplished all their training tasks on schedule and he tested them to ensure they did their job well.

Not once did Taz yell at anyone for not supporting him. We knew what he wanted in advance, it was what he needed and what he used, and it worked. It was the quietest workup for the NTPI that I had ever seen.

The date of the inspection approached and the XO started worrying, but Taz stuck to his plan and didn’t see a need to change his methods.

Then the date of the inspection came and the squadron aced the inspection. I hardly noticed they were there, and the air crew slung the bomb and hit the target and everyone was happy.

Except the XO. I had the occasion to talk to him and I mentioned what a fantastic job Taz did. He did better than anyone before him and he did it with no “stress grenades.” The XO didn’t see it that way. Taz was lucky the inspectors were lazy. Taz surely was incompetent because there was no stress, no one running around and yelling. These were almost his exact words. I was dumbfounded.

When I read history books, often a disastrous battle such as Normandy will be offered as an example of greatness. Surely we won, but an awful lot of units landed on the wrong beaches, slaughters were common because of unit cohesion being lost, and it was through sheer guts and low-level leadership and initiative that we succeeded. People remember Normandy and Market Garden, another complete disaster, but don’t pay attention to the truly successful battles where planning resulted in a victory with few losses or drama.

Sometimes I think mankind is doomed, not because of the plague or coronaviruses or other disasters, but because people don’t appreciate quiet competence. Politicians are successful when we think they have saved us, or will save us from impending disaster. Politicians who say there is no crisis and that all is well are usually ignored, while those who create crisis are rewarded.

I’ve lost touch with Taz. I hope he has done well in his life, he deserves it, but the cynic in me thinks that he will never be appreciated for his quiet competence.

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There are 15 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Skyler: Sometimes I think mankind is doomed, not because of the plague or corona viruses, or other disasters, but because people don’t appreciate quiet competence.

    Amen.

    • #1
    • January 27, 2020, at 9:41 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I love reading about logistics guys like Taz.

    The first one who comes to mind for me is General Lucius Clay. I wrote about him here on Rico years ago. Utterly unappreciated by nearly everyone in the Army in WWII, and due to some youthful indiscretions he was perpetually passed over for combat command, but when the port of Calais needed fixed, Eisenhower tapped Clay to do it since the rest of Army engineers had boggled it.

    Clay’s big moment came with the Berlin Airlift. Though others (Curtis Lemay in particular) would attempt to take full credit for the success of the airlift in his lifetime, Clay was one of the logistical geniuses, along with Gen. Tunner, who actually did all the work. The Berliners recognized Clay and even named a street after him for his work.

    • #2
    • January 28, 2020, at 6:29 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor

    What a fine testament to a great man, @skyler. The man had a gift. I hope you’re wrong: I hope he was appreciated for his talents as he went through life.

    • #3
    • January 28, 2020, at 6:41 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. Rodin Member

    Damn those lubricants! They may save parts but they are too damn quiet!

    • #4
    • January 28, 2020, at 7:46 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Joe Boyle Member

    In beautiful Miesau FRG, I was a platoon sergeant in a classified weapons storage facility. We provided security both in storage and in transit. Those inspections were a real anal exam. Personnel records, health records, every weapon, vehicle, it was a week long crawl up your butt. The pressure to perform was unreal. Some screaming and yelling was expected to show that you were as concerned as the Bn Cdr and the Co Cdr. I’m not a screamer, and the first time around there was some barely concealed worry about the platoon’s performance. We did well and were pushed to the front in the performance tests. I always thought the key was round pegs in round holes and hide weak links. The sixty men and women in my platoon never let me down. When they did, I always said I’ve got more ass than they’ve got teeth.

    • #5
    • January 28, 2020, at 8:56 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  6. Ross C Member
    Ross C Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Reminds me of the officer classification scheme of the German General Kurt Von Hammerstein-Equord which I will reproduce from Wikipedia as follows:

    I [i.e. General Kurt] distinguish four types [of officers]. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage. [italics mine]

    I have always gotten a big laugh from this both because he thinks 90% of officers both stupid and lazy, but the last group who is stupid and hardworking. How many successful folks, at least who occupy middle management positions in large organizations, seem to be like this.

    • #6
    • January 28, 2020, at 1:57 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    Ross C (View Comment):
    I have always gotten a big laugh from this both because he thinks 90% of officers both stupid and lazy, but the last group who is stupid and hardworking.

    Going through the history of the world and its militaries, that might not be a bad percentage guess. I may be wrong, but I think we do a bit better with the US Military’s officer corps. At least 30% I have met are whipsmart. A good part of the rest are not dumb, but that does not mean they are competent or that they aren’t ticket punchers and politicians or lazy or not the most honorable.

    • #7
    • January 28, 2020, at 2:26 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  8. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler

    Ross C (View Comment):

    Reminds me of the officer classification scheme of the German General Kurt Von Hammerstein-Equord which I will reproduce from Wikipedia as follows:

    I [i.e. General Kurt] distinguish four types [of officers]. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage. [italics mine]

    I have always gotten a big laugh from this both because he thinks 90% of officers both stupid and lazy, but the last group who is stupid and hardworking. How many successful folks, at least who occupy middle management positions in large organizations, seem to be like this.

    I have heard this before but didn’t know the source, and have found it to be generally true in describing qualities though not true in the percentages.

    Never ever trust hard working stupid people. They are the type to become politicians.

    • #8
    • January 28, 2020, at 3:20 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. PHCheese Member

    Reminds me of the story of Joe Montana in a Super Bowl. His team was losing , time was running out and they had to go the length of the field. His teammates huddled around him expecting some great pep talk. Mr. Cool looked up into the stands and said, “hey there’s John Candy in section 10”. Just another game to Joe. They of course won on that drive.

    • #9
    • January 28, 2020, at 3:30 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  10. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Reminds me of the story of Joe Montana in a Super Bowl. His team was losing , time was running out and they had to go the length of the field. His teammates huddled around him expecting some great pep talk. Mr. Cool looked up into the stands and said, “hey there’s John Candy in section 10”. Just another game to Joe. They of course won on that drive.

    I remember that game. I was living in San Rafael Ca at the time. My son and I were Bears fans; most of the folks we knew were for the Niners. These Bears/Niners games were so much fun: lots of razzing one another over missed plays, and some of the brutal put downs weren’t on the field but in my living room. 

    Mike Ditka, the legendary Bears coach, played an awesome game, complete with magical strategies that outwitted the opponents. And like you are saying, the Niners were all freaked out cuz they had to cover so much ground to win the game it was not believable. They had just witnessed so much razzle dazzle from Ditka that they forgot the one thing no football player should lose sight of: a single well run touchdown can win a game.

    Luckily for his team, Montana did not forget that notion. (And I had to eat crow for the next week.)

    • #10
    • January 28, 2020, at 5:58 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    That was one well told character study. I’ll ditto the idea that maybe Taz has gone forward in his life and been appreciated for his intelligence and capabilities, in his career and his home life.

    Is there any chance of a squad reunion? It sounds like it would be a cool thing to have happen.

    • #11
    • January 28, 2020, at 6:01 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Steve C. Member

    I’ve always found it challenging to work in an environment where leadership and competence are associated with high decibels. The two best COs I ever had were even tempered and fun to work for.

    • #12
    • January 28, 2020, at 6:07 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  13. Steve C. Member

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    I’ve always found it challenging to work in an environment where leadership and competence are associated with high decibels. The two best COs I ever had were even tempered and fun to work for.

    They both went on to command armor brigades and one retired as a LTG.

    • #13
    • January 28, 2020, at 7:06 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  14. Saint Augustine Member

    Ross C (View Comment):

    Reminds me of the officer classification scheme of the German General Kurt Von Hammerstein-Equord which I will reproduce from Wikipedia as follows:

    I [i.e. General Kurt] distinguish four types [of officers]. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage. [italics mine]

    I have always gotten a big laugh from this both because he thinks 90% of officers both stupid and lazy, but the last group who is stupid and hardworking. How many successful folks, at least who occupy middle management positions in large organizations, seem to be like this.

    Image result for dogbert difficult coworkers

    • #14
    • January 29, 2020, at 6:12 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  15. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    I’ve always found it challenging to work in an environment where leadership and competence are associated with high decibels. The two best COs I ever had were even tempered and fun to work for.

    When medicos do it it is generally because they watch too much tv. 

    • #15
    • January 29, 2020, at 7:01 PM PST
    • 1 like