Right of the Line
In Jocko Podcast #33, Jocko Willink reviews a book called “The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War,” by Frederick Downs.
Downs tells of his experience in Vietnam as a newly-minted Army lieutenant joining the 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment. As he was introduced to his new company, he learned of their habit when saluting:
When an enlisted man saluted, he would say “Golden Dragon, sir!” The officer would return the salute with “Right-of-the-line.” I asked about this.
They told me that the First of the Fourteenth was an old infantry regiment steeped in tradition. During the Boxer Rebellion in China the unit had fought bravely. Afterward they had adopted the symbol of a Golden Dragon. The other part of the salute came from some battle in the Civil War. Right before a large battle a staff officer asked a general where to put the First of the Fourteenth. The general had roared back, “Put them to the right of the line, where they belong.” The right of the line is where a leader traditionally puts his best men and units. This comes down through military history because, when a man fought with shield and sword, the right arm or sword arm was unprotected. The best fighter was put to the right to protect the sword arm of the man on his left. Only the most trusted and the best fighters held the position to the right.
The story is interesting historically, but I was most struck by the focus on trustworthiness. There’s nothing we value more at OSI. We aspire to be trustworthy in everything we do, work hard to improve when we fall short, and recognize how crucial it is for our clients to be able to depend on us.
How do we earn trust? Very simply, by being reliable. Reliability is the tangible expression of trustworthiness. We trust in proportion to how much we believe we can count on a person or organization to do what they say they’re going to do.
How do we know how much we can count on them? Experience. We learn to trust bit by bit, starting with little things and taking increasingly greater risks as our experience is reinforced and our confidence grows.
This aspect of the so-called “little things” is often overlooked. The little things are crucial because they’re the very things others will consider when weighing how much we should be trusted with big things. The little things matter. They matter because the big things are made up of little things, and the biggest thing of all—trust—literally rises or falls on them.
Downs’s story also highlights the relationship between identity and behavior. When an enlisted soldier salutes an officer, the soldier says: “Golden Dragon, sir!” This is the soldier literally asserting: “I am a Golden Dragon.” By replying: “Right of the line,” the officer is saying “Well, then, you obviously belong on the right of the line, the position of greatest trust”—because that’s what it means to be a Golden Dragon.
A soldier joining the 1st of the 14th immediately becomes part of a group that believes they belong on the right of the line. Each soldier comes to believe they must be counted on to defend the entire battalion. In turn, the battalion knows it must be worthy of the greatest responsibility in combat.
We don’t salute one another here at OSI, so we have to find different ways of reinforcing our identity. We begin with the first question asked of new hires in our onboarding process: “What business do you think we’re in?” We often get answers like: “The software development business,” or “The technology business,” or “The problem-solving business.” These are expected, of course, and true. They don’t actually get to the heart of the matter, though.
As a service business, the quality of our client relationships is the measure of our health. If our client relationships are great, our business thrives. If they aren’t, we’re in big trouble. Trust is the foundation of great relationships, so what business are we really in?
We’re in the trust business.
We embrace this truth, so the history of the 1st of the 14th resonates powerfully. In the end, there’s nothing our clients need from us more than to be able to count on us and the work we do.
We strive every day to earn the position on the right of the line.