Joint Base Charleston


Pruning vs. levying discipline

By Lt. Col. Robert Burton | 628th Air Base Wing Staff Judge Advocate | April 24, 2013

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- When I was back in high school, I worked at a golf course during the summers, as well as afternoons and evenings during portions of the school year. I spent many hours taking care of the expansive areas of grass, trees, shrubs and related verdure. I very much enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed that kind of activity so much that - in spite of my parents having three other able-bodied sons living with us - I volunteered to take care of our yard on my own. The only stipulation was that no one else in the home could intervene in any of my yard work. Given the fact my parents and siblings were apparently more sane or intelligent than I, they all quickly agreed to the deal.

On the side of our home there was a row of trees and bushes that separated our yard from our neighbor's. The plants had pretty much been left to themselves during the years we had lived in that home, and it showed. They had grown unchecked, without direction or guidance, and the result was a somewhat haphazardly placed collection of vegetation that offended my new-found sensitivities to the proper care of flora. So I went to work.
I got up early on a Saturday and with shears in hand I began to carefully cut away the limbs, branches and boughs that were impeding the side yard plants' potential. I had learned much of the necessary technique while working with the professionals at the golf course, and as I worked I held to the belief that by cutting, breaking and removing parts of the existing greenery, growth would be spurred, dying plants would be revived and the yard as a whole would be taken to a new level of beauty and balance theretofore unrealized.

Later that evening, I had finished the job and removed the refuse from the yard. My parents came home shortly afterwards and surveyed my handiwork for the first time that day. I was ill-prepared for their response. They were horrified. The barrier the overgrown shrubbery had previously provided to our view of the neighbor's unkempt yard, dog, and RV had been removed. In its place was only a scant remnant that seemed to serve as a frame for the unsightly mess beyond. Of course, my parents were right. It did look terrible. At that point there was nothing I could do about that. My attempts at quickly educating my parents on the science of pruning and the idea that in time, the barrier would look better than it ever had had fallen on deaf ears. It was hard to blame them. They were at least glad they hadn't paid me for my work.

There are some obvious parallels between pruning and levying discipline; be it in a family setting or within a squadron. Often times as supervisors we hesitate to discipline or otherwise mentor subordinates or co-workers when they need or deserve it. It's awkward. It's painful. It's uncomfortable. Sometimes a lack of discipline leads to behavior that stifles real progress or growth, and eventually may even make it harder for others around that person to move forward, choking off surrounding development. In either case, true potential remains unmet.

While "pruning" is often disruptive, while it may temporarily pain the individual at whom it is directed and may reveal unsightly truths we'd prefer remain hidden, in the long run discipline and proper mentoring bears fruit. I can recall myriad examples of supervisors correcting my actions and setting me straight. I can't say I always enjoyed those moments: most of the time I didn't. But I know in nearly every case I learned something that changed me and the direction I was going. Over time, I have benefitted greatly from those moments and am closer to reaching my true potential than I would have it left unchecked to grow as I saw fit.

A couple of years after the side yard pruning incident, my parents reluctantly and fully admitted that they were much happier with the way the plants hard turned out than they were previously. I remember the incident not only for the lessons it taught me, but also because it was probably the only time in my life I may have known more than my parents. I still frequently bring it up in their presence.

The legal office exists in part to help others on base as they use the tools they've been given to correct and better others. While almost always a difficult task, I believe most individuals (on both sides of the equation) benefit from the process. Please use your tools wisely and judiciously, but please use them. As a result, we reach a greater potential and better perform the mission we've all been assigned.

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