A colonel in the United States Army told me the other day something like this: The most valuable officer, the one who has the greatest responsibility, is the sergeant. The true sergeant is born, not made--he is the priceless gift of the gods. He is so highly prized that when found he is never promoted, nor is he allowed to resign. If he is dissatisfied with his pay, Captain, Lieutenant and Colonel chip in--they cannot afford to lose him. He is a rara avis--the apple of their eye.
His first requirement is that he must be able to lick any man in the company. A drunken private may damn a captain upside down and wrong-side out, and the captain is not allowed to reply. He can neither strike with his fist, nor engage in a cussing match, but your able sergeant is an adept in both of these polite accomplishments. Even if a private strike an officer, the officer is not allowed to strike back. Perhaps the man who abuses him could easily beat him in a rough-and-tumble fight, and then it is quite a sufficient reason to keep one's clothes clean. We say the revolver equalizes all men, but it doesn't. It is disagreeable to shoot a man. It scatters brains and blood all over the sidewalk, attracts a crowd, requires a deal of explanation afterward, and may cost an officer his stripes. No good officer ever hears anything said about him by a private.
The sergeant hears everything, and his reply to backslack is a straight-arm jab in the jaw. The sergeant is responsible only to his captain, and no good captain will ever know anything about what a sergeant does, and he will not believe it when told. If a fight occurs between two privates, the sergeant jumps in, bumps their heads together and licks them both. If a man feigns sick, or is drunk, the sergeant chucks him under the pump. The regulations do not call for any such treatment, but the sergeant does not know anything about the regulations--he gets the thing done. The sergeant may be twenty years old or sixty--age does not count. The sergeant is a father to his men--he regards them all as children--bad boys--and his business is to make them brave, honorable and dutiful soldiers.
The sergeant is always the first man up in the morning, the last man to go to bed at night. He knows where his men are every minute of the day or night. If they are actually sick, he is both nurse and physician, and dictates gently to the surgeon what should be done. He is also the undertaker, and the digging of ditches and laying out of latrines all fall to his lot. Unlike the higher officers, he does not have to dress "smart," and he is very apt to discard his uniform and go clothed like a civilian teamster, excepting on special occasions when necessity demands braid and buttons.
He knows everything, and nothing. No wild escapade of a higher officer passes by him, yet he never tells.
Now one might suppose that he is an absolute tyrant, but a good sergeant is a beneficent tyrant at the right time. To break the spirit of his men will not do--it would unfit them for service--so what he seeks to do is merely to bend their minds so as to match his own. Gradually they grow to both love and fear him. In time of actual fight he transforms cowards into heroes. He holds his men up to the scratch. In battle there are often certain officers marked for death--they are to be shot by their own men. It is a time of getting even--and in the hurly-burly and excitement there are no witnesses. The sergeant is ever on the lookout for such mutinies, and his revolver often sends to the dust the head revolutionary before the dastardly plot can be carried out. In war-time all executions are not judicial.
In actual truth, the sergeant is the only real, sure-enough fighting man in the army. He is as rare as birds' teeth, and every officer anxiously scans his recruits in search of good sergeant timber.
In business life, the man with the sergeant instincts is even more valuable than in the army. The business sergeant is the man not in evidence--who asks for no compliments or bouquets--who knows where things are--who has no outside ambitions, and no desire save to do his work. If he is too smart he will lay plots and plans for his own promotion, and thereby he is pretty sure to defeat himself.
As an individual the average soldier is a sneak, a shirk, a failure, a coward. He is only valuable as he is licked into shape. It is pretty much the same in business. It seems hard to say it, but the average employe in factory, shop or store, puts the face of the clock to shame looking at it; he is thinking of his pay envelope and his intent is to keep the boss located and to do as little work as possible. In many cases the tyranny of the employer is to blame for the condition, but more often it is the native outcrop of suspicion that prompts the seller to give no more than he can help.
And here the sergeant comes in, and with watchful eye and tireless nerves, holds the recreants to their tasks. If he is too severe, he will fix in the shirks more firmly the shirk microbe; but if he is of better fibre, he may supply a little more will to those who lack it, and gradually create an atmosphere of right intent, so that the only disgrace will consist in their wearing the face off the regulator and keeping one ear cocked to catch the coming footsteps of the boss.
There is not the slightest danger that there will ever be an overplus of sergeants. Let the sergeant keep out of strikes, plots, feuds, hold his temper and show what's what, and he can name his own salary and keep his place for ninety-nine years without having a contract.
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