- When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag. … As for the types of comments I make, sometimes I just, By God, get carried away with my own eloquence.
- Remark to his nephew about his copious profanity, quoted in “The Unknown Patton” (1983) by Charles M. Province, p. 184 (here, via Wikiquote)
One glorious summer, after a couple of months of Scouting, I signed on to do air pollution research for several weeks in the field, in and around Farmington, New Mexico. Hours were long, and the driving between sampling sites was more than 120 miles a day, between Farmington and Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. Driving through the desert, passing the Shiprock every day, is rough duty, but somebody had to do it.
My mother’s brother, Harry Stewart, lived in Farmington. Weekends I was royally dined and liquored, and got the opportunity to meet Uncle Harry’s friends, who included C. M. Woodbury, then city manager of Farmington. Woodbury’s exploits on the golf course provided constant entertainment. His opinions about having to measure air pollution from the Four Corners Power Plant and the then-under-construction San Juan Generating Station gave me great insight into local views on regional and national issues, as the Clean Air Act wended its way through Congress.
Woodbury had been an aide of some sort to General George Patton in Europe, as I understood it. Sadly, I never did get back to Farmington to debrief him in detail about World War II, a loss of information that still stings from time to time. I think he was with the 752nd Tank Battalion. Woodbury retired in 1976.
The movie, Patton, still played in theaters, and one Sunday, over dinner, conversation turned to great leadership and whether I thought Patton was such a leader. I hadn’t seen the movie. I didn’t know much about Patton. I asked what a definition of a good leader might be. Uncle Harry and Woodbury settled on this criterion: A good leader is someone whose followers will go to hell and back for her, or him. Why did Patton inspire that sort of followership, I asked.
Woodbury rambled on about Patton getting gasoline for his tanks and trucks on a run through German lines that became legendary, and was portrayed in the movie. He talked about how Patton’s troops always could count on a good, warm meal when they got a break from battle. He talked about how proud every soldier was to be a part of that unit under Patton’s command. He stopped, his eyes welled up and a tear, or maybe more, rolled down his cheek.
“We would have gone to hell for Patton because we knew he would have gone to hell for us. And he did.”
William Manchester once noted that, in battle, soldiers don’t die for great causes. They fight to defend and save the friend to the right and the friend to the left.
It would have been interesting to know Patton.
We moved to Texas in 1987. Texas is a culture shock, I think, regardless where one comes from, even sometimes if one comes from Texas. We moved directly from Cheverly, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C.
Describing the conservative, goody-two-shoes aspects of Texas culture of that time can’t be done in shorthand. A couple of examples: Duncanville at the time had about 35,000 residents, and 44 churches. Bordering Duncanville were three or five megachurches, among the largest in the nation, which drew heavily from Duncanville residents. It was rare to meet someone who wouldn’t ask early in any conversation, “And where do you go to church?” A great, personal and close relationship to Jesus is expected to be a feature of any “normal” person’s life in Texas. The day I drove out of Utah, I remember thinking as I rose above the fog heading up Parley’s Canyon that I would probably never again live in a place where it was so difficult to get a drink with dinner. Then we moved to Texas. On the surface, and often below the surface, Texans worked hard (and still do) to demonstrate that they are straighter than Mormons, and blessed because of their lack of sinning. We don’t need to get into the ironies and incongruities of country music, Dallas culture and other now-well-identified sins of the Bible Belt.
Let’s just say, profanity was not something one publicly assented to.
I came down here to work with American Airlines, which was headed at the time by Robert Crandall. Crandall’s use of profanity was legendary among AA executives and workers — executives, especially. Crandall ran a tight operation with high expectations of worker achievement, especially in competition with other airlines. “Competitive anger,” Crandall called it — and he expected all employees to demonstrate that, in appropriate, customer-serving, money-making ways. Failures were noted, and often enough one might expect to be in a meeting with Crandall where an explanation of how and why things went wrong would be cut off with an expletive-filled dressing down that both made the
victim subject understand the nature and severity of the error and pledge never to make that nor any other error ever again.
Talking about these events later, witnesses almost never said anything about the profanity. Living in Texas where profanity was thought to make even strong men faint and swoon, Crandall’s expletives were considered instead indications of the importance of his thought, and speech, and markers that he was to be listened to. I remember one young MBA rattled by the profanity; he left the company within a few weeks, and he wasn’t even the subject of the discussion. But among others, especially successful managers and executives, discussion of content of meetings focused on the subject of the meetings, what was said about that subject, with unconscious excising of the profanity.
One famous meeting involved cutting costs, and the subject was security for a warehouse in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Complaints about the cost for security the previous year led the local manager to beef up fences, get rid of the security company, and get dogs to roam the area at night. Crandall pushed harder, and discussion turned to whether it would be even cheaper than dog food to get a sound system that would randomly play the sounds of big, vicious dogs’ barking instead. I wasn’t in that meeting, but I heard several different accounts, all of them noting the boss’s exploration of options others might not think of, and how hard it was to please him — but not one story that included any comment about profanity, which I learned had laced the entire episode and probably made it memorable to everyone within earshot. And so they’d retell it. A remarkable piece of effective corporate communication.
How does one gauge when and whether profanity is necessary, or effective, in communication?
In one project, we videotaped Crandall talking on company issues and what he expected in the leaders the company hired as managers. In several hours of video, I don’t recall a single time we had to retape, or edit, any profanity out. Crandall turned off the profanity when it might pose a problem. People who know him outside the company often express surprise that he’d ever use such language.
I sometimes wondered if Crandall was a reincarnation of Patton in at least some small way. But Crandall was born in 1935, and Patton died in 1945. Reincarnation is not the answer.