Everything I Know About Business I Learned In The SCA, Part 2: Squad Leader

In part one, I presented some Lessons For The Grunt, lessons for the individual trying to be a productive part of a larger team. I’m grateful for all the applause it received, and the encouraging words on the side.

In Part Two, we’re going to examine some lessons for squad leaders: aimed at the times you’re trying to help your small group succeed.

HERE THEY COME! (This is a still from “Pennsic XL Shield Charge” on Vimeo. Thanks to Combat Camera Corps for sharing.)

These lessons have helped me understand how to encourage people to work together; how to keep view of your larger objectives even as you work on the minutiae of day-to-day business; and how to ensure that everyone on the team can contribute.

Lessons For The Squad Leader

Spears Kill Shields, Shields Keep Spears Alive

SCA combat has evolved over the years into a relatively stable combined-arms approach. A wall of Shields (each of whom is also carrying a sword, but in melee a Shield’s primary job is to stay alive and block). Behind that, a row of Polearms with six-to-seven-foot weapons, protecting the Shields and taking the occasional smash at each other; and behind that, the nine-foot long Spears, thrusting through the gaps to kill whoever they can.

The parts are stronger together than apart; one on one, a shieldsman can usually hunt down and kill a spear, and often kill a polearm, but no single fighter has no chance against the shield wall.

(Missile and siege weapons have changed this slightly, but the basics remain the same. And I apologize to my cousins in the Ministry of Fence; I don’t know the melee equivalents on your battlefield.)

In business, this sort of combined-arms approach is crucial. At a small size, everyone needs to be a generalist—but as business size grows, it’s important that you have the right people do each job. A Spear isn’t going to be able to defend anyone, and also becomes much more vulnerable if it overreaches while trying to kill. Keeping together lets everyone do their job right, to everyone’s benefit.

Let the Funny Weapons Be Funny

I have done a disservice to some fighters, however, having left out the ‘funny weapons’—two-sword, single-sword, greatsword. In single combat, these are fearsome weapons forms, heavy on offense if a bit short on defense. In melee, those skilled enough to survive while wielding these weapons become specialists—harriers, who charge ahead and disrupt enemy plans; skirmishers who waylay warriors found out of position; or free agents who act to counter the opposition’s specialists.

One of the interesting parts of watching the Field Battle is seeing these small packs of specialists roaming the field; often they are comprised of Knights and Dukes bored with the shield wall, and often they find a way to turn the tide—whether it’s drawing out a key contingent, or ambushing a pack of hot-shot spears on their way to the wall, or just making the enemy fear them enough to depart from their battle plan.

In business, you may have encountered some of these ‘funny weapon’ folks—the ones whose position on the org chart makes no sense, but who are clearly bringing a lot of value to the company. Sometimes they have a job title like “Chief Programmer” or “Lead Research Analyst” or “Product Direction Architect”, or some other TWT, but I like to describe them simply by their name: they’re the Steve at their company, and no one’s going to replace them when they move on.

If you were to try to make them conform, you’d ruin their value; but they have to earn that oddity, prove their value, rather than just demanding that they’re a special snowflake that doesn’t need to do code reviews before submitting.

There are only two tactics: flanking, and surprise

Tactics are for people who can think. When you’re wearing twenty pounds of iron and leather, have been hit on the head repeatedly, and are awash in enough adrenaline to be running in heavy armor at full speed in the hot August sun across a Pennsylvanian campground, chances are you’re not going to think well.

I believe this battle plan is called “GET ‘EM!”

So go ahead and keep it simple. There are two tactics that work: flanking, and surprise. Flanking: come at your opponent from the side. Then they aren’t as well defended; they can’t attack or even see you as well; and they have to waste time turning to face you. Surprise comes in a variety of forms: having numbers where they did not expect it, having a flight of high-skill spears suddenly pressuring a weak point, and so forth.

Both of these tactics work great. The easiest, and most effective, of shield-wall tactics is to roll your opponent’s line: flank the line, kill the shield on the end; now you’re even more flanking the rest of the line. Lather, rinse, repeat. Munch your way down the entire line, munch munch munch, and then clean up the stragglers. Unfortunately, since this tactic is so simple, the enemy easily can do it too—and then you both end up flanking right, munching each other from opposite ends, and end up in the Whirling Tidy Bowl Of Death from which there are no survivors.

The countermove to this is to reverse direction—for example, go left when they go left (their right). This requires someone spotting that the opposition is trying to flank, and then directing the shield wall—however long it is—in the right direction. Again, my old gorup kept it simple: “LEMON!” (or any other L-word) meant go left. R-words (“ROSIE!” “RHINO!” “RUTEBEGA!” “What?!”) meant right. This was one of those times you repeat the order, helping it flow down the line quickly. It’s not rocket science, but having twenty burly fighters all do the same thing at the same time is magic, and has been the turning point in more than one combat.

In business, the old mantra to Keep It Simple, Stupid applies here. Sure, you can position your business and crunch the data sheets and plan to lose money for a decade before becoming the biggest retailer, ever. Sometimes, that trick even works. But most of the time, it doesn’t. Execute your winning moves well, and chances are you’ll win overall.

So, day to day, focus on your company’s fundamentals — what you’re good at, what makes your teams great at their job, and what you’ve got the customers to support. That’s your 80% case, where most of your value comes from; how can you get even better at it?

Celebrate the Little Things

This is one of my most important Life Lessons, and I learnt it the hard way.

In the SCA, it seems like there’s an award for everything, and sometimes it feels like everyone gets something, as if these were no more than participation awards. Some of the recognition is for stuff that seems downright dumb when you explain it. If you weren’t there.

A classic example was at aparticularly fierce Great Northeastern War. Now, you have to understand, GNEW is usually held at a remote campground in Maine. Big trees everywhere. Bumpy dirt roads. Streams. The works. But it’s a fun event, and a couple hundred people made the trip, bringing with them their tents and pots and pans and garb and weapons and all the other impedimentia of war.

On this particular GNEW, the rain just wouldn’t let up. To make matters worse, the parking area was (due to site restrictions) about a half-mile from the closest available camping sites. Folks loaded stuff up however they could, backpacks, arms, legs, dragged along on shields. The lucky ones had a wagon or other such device; but not all were so foresighted.

Into this fray jumped a young man, whose name I’ve lost to the dawns of time. Seeing the stream of people coming, he noticed a few kind souls, well, up mud creek without a cart. And, being the lordly figure he was, he went back, time and again, helping push carts, helping ford the tiny treacherous streams, and for one good lady, even helping portage her wheelchair across the worst of the terrain.

He, of course, ended up soaked to the skin, and covered head to foot in mud. So it was in that condition that he got called into Court and recognized for his efforts. It was only a token—perhaps the Queen’s favor, to be worn at his leisure—but it meant a lot, and it communicated a lot about what was valued during that reign. It was a small gesture to recognize a minor but important victory, over ugly weather conditions, and the man who thanklessly helped others to conquer them.

In business, our tendency is to gloss over the day-to-day stuff that makes a company excel. The person who gets their submission in on time, error-free and well-tested. The note-taker who ensures that everyone knows what happened, and what they should do next. The mediator who connects two people before a little disagreement becomes a big one. These unsung heroes are all through your organization; how do you celebrate their contributions?

By the way, this doesn’t mean that small victories are celebrated the same as big ones. By all means, draw that distinction — otherwise, nothing has meaning. But while you’re doing that, remember to cheer on the everyday things that bring positive value; don’t let them lie uncherished simply because of their, shall we say, mundanity.

Skill matters — but so do numbers

One of the more terrifying moments I had fighting came on a Bridge battle. In these battles, three narrow “bridges” are set up, delineated by hay bales, and the armies start off on opposite sides. At various points in the battle, a timeout is called and living fighters near the center of each bridge are counted; control of the bridges earns points, and overall points wins the battle.

I was at the front of the middle bridge. Being left-handed (excuse me: a damn stinking mutant leftie) I was on the left side of the short shield wall — lefties have an advantage there, where our sword arm can reach around the opposition’s shield wall. (Of course, the righty opposite me had the same advantage — but lefties are far more used to facing righties than the other way around.)

We were holding our own, sort of. Then people started evaporating around me.

Because of the close quarters on the bridges, fighters would often ‘die’ and then stumble over to fall outside of the haybales, so that their compatriots didn’t have to fight on top of them. So when I say evaporate, that’s how it felt — one minute, I was part of a shield wall, and the next, it was me and a pole arm and a spear and like one other shield, plus a bunch of folks groaning and stumbling over the haybales.

I turtled up, and was able to tough it out for the five or ten seconds it took for more allies to surge forward — but that felt like five minutes. It turned out we’d become the target of a trio of hot-shit Middle Kingdom spearmen, who were cycling in and out and gacking everyone in sight, often with a well-placed shot to the cup. (Again, except for the stinking mutant lefties whose shields are on the “wrong” side.)

A pig-faced bascinet is the perfect helm for the person at the tip of your boar-snout charge

Luckily, someone smarter than me was behind me, and had seen the problem coming. A few seconds after that I got killed by a glaive—but as I was walking to the sidelines, I got to watch a perfectly-executed ‘boar snout’ charge. A large mass of our bravest warriors surged forward, plowing their wedge formation into the shield-men and driving them apart. Having made it through the protection, they quickly overran and killed the Spears piecemeal. Woo!

So what’s the lesson here? Skill matters, but so do numbers.

In business, the rank and file of the business vastly outnumber the hot shots. Sometimes it takes an insight from one of those superstars to solve a problem, but often, it’s the unremarkable but effective efforts of the rest of the company. Encourage both, and help everyone understand the context of their work.

And that wraps up part two! Join melater for part three: Lessons For The Community, including canards like “No One Facing the Audience Should Be Surprised”, and the crucial “You Rule Because They Believe”.

If you liked this part, remember to give it a few more claps!

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.