Movies about the military and war give us the idea that the decision makers in times of combat are never on the battleground. They sit somewhere in an office far away from the action and bark out the orders. These orders are then to be executed by those poor soldiers risking their lives in the trenches. The trenches are on the battlefield and that is where the bullets fly and the bombs explode! We get the idea that the soldiers in the trenches are victims of the decisions taken by military leaders far away from the reality. The question we must ponder though is, whether there is any space or opportunity for leadership to surface in the trenches?


Let us learn from the following case study – The lives of Business Professional candidate A and Business Professional candidate B:

Business Professional A (BP-A) is a 28 year old who qualified for his Profession at the age of 25.  He had good results in the board exams and his performance reviews at his employer have always been satisfactory.  But BP-A has lately developed a feeling of resentment.  He feels that he has no say in the decisions being made at his employer.  He feels abused by his manager and senior manager because he is the one always executing their decisions.  He is the one facing the clients, spending late hours at the office preparing presentations and doing the nitty gritty of what was decided earlier in the day.

BP-A often ponders why he studied so hard for his Profession if he is constantly doing the work of a glorified PA.  He feels that his days as a clerk are long gone and that he should be the manager of the team that he works with.  He constantly analyses every moment of the day at work, to ponder how he once again had to do the dirty work and execute the management decisions.  BP-A is currently in the process of developing a victim mentality which causes much bitterness and what we like to call an emotional cancer.  His attitude will over the next couple of months become negative, pessimistic and even cynical. He will soon be known as a moaner and people will isolate him, because he will become one of the biggest energy drainers in the office.

BP-A has lost his vision in the trenches and has given up.  Two things usually happen to BP-A: they quit and go through the above at the next business, or they get asked to leave and go through the above at the next business.

Business Professional B (EBP-B) is a 29 year old who qualified for her Profession at the age of 25.  She had average results in the board exams, but she passed.  Her performance reviews at her current employer have always been excellent and she has been identified as part of the company’s leadership excellence program.  BP-B has lately developed feelings of great excitement and passion.  She loves being part of her team at work.  She learns so much from her manager and senior manager and enjoys being a part of the process in executing their decisions.  She learns everyday that she faces clients and deadlines.  Implementing the tactics of the management decisions teaches her so much about business and how the right decisions works out on the floor.

BP-B often ponders how hard she studied for her Profession and what wonderful opportunities it has created for her in life.  She is so grateful for what she has achieved and constantly writes notes of her gratitude in her journal.  BP-B volunteers on a weekly basis at an educational charity that teaches extra classes in basic literacy skills to under privileged kids.  BP-B is currently in a process of developing an abundance mentality which causes so much fulfilment and satisfaction in her life.   She will soon be known as an energizer and people will engage with her because she makes their lives feel lighter.

BP-B is living a visionary life in the trenches and will soon move up.  Two things usually happen to BP-B: they grow and develop into leaders at their current employer, or they grow and develop into leaders who are then poached by another employer for vast amounts of money.

 This case study asks the following questions:

  • Why is there a difference between BP-A and BP-B?
  • Is it really that bad being in the trenches?
  • How do I practice leadership in the trenches?


As a Business Professional you will find yourself in the trenches of the corporation that you work for, at the start of your career. This is where we all start, even those managers and senior managers who currently bark out the instructions. Most military generals will tell you that they have learned some of their most valuable leadership and life lessons in the trenches. Leaders in business that we work with will testify to the value of experience in the trenches, especially when tough decisions need to be made on leadership level.

As a Business Professional you must not underestimate the value of the trenches. It is a place where a lot can be learned regarding leadership. Therefore you need to capitalize on your time in the trenches and you can do that by adhering to the following:


1. When in the trenches, learn:

People feel that when they know how to do the job, they need to move on to the next job. But there is more than just the job. When you are developing as a leader you also need to learn about yourself and those around you. Leaders are learners.  Leaders are never learned.

In the trenches you find the ideal place to learn about yourself. Here you must up your level of curiosity and notice things that most people never realise about themselves. What motivates you? What do you value and why? How far can you push yourself? What are your really good at? Where are you going with your life?

In the trenches you also find the ideal place to learn from others. Once again pay attention, be curious! What are the different personalities with you in the trenches? How are the different personalities motivated? Which managers do you look up to? Why do you look up to these specific managers?

Leadership is not about the job, it is about people and here in the trenches is where you learn about yourself and also where you learn about people. Keep a journal and reflect on what you have learned on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid to ask. Ask (always seeking knowledge) your manager or colleagues when you don’t understand or when you don’t know. We often work with managers who struggle to get their teams to ask. You must ask questions, because it will be the only way to learn most of the time. One of humanity’s biggest fears is emotional discomfort and this fear prevents us from asking questions. When asking for knowledge we feel vulnerable and this causes emotional discomfort. This is what the trenches are all about though: learning asking and growing.


2. Drop the entitlement mentality:

Gretchen Neels, a Boston based consultant was coaching a group of young adults in their mid twenties on how to succeed in job interviews.  She asked them how they believe employers view them.  She gave them a clue, telling them that the word she was looking for begins with the letter “e.”  Their guesses were: energetic, enthusiastic and excellent.  The correct answer though was “entitled.”  The behaviour of an entitled individual is usually very self-centred, feeling they have the right to receive from their employee and usually they have a demanding style of ambition.  This entitled attitude of the new generation stems from the consumer driven worldview created by the Baby Boomer generation.  Our challenge for the new generation is to become aware of this entitled attitude.

Living with an entitlement attitude will cause more harm than good, especially in the workplace.  The new generation professionals who excel are those who believe they need to take responsibility for their own lives and don’t expect others to do it for them.  They have an internal locus of control and make things happen for themselves.

So let’s answer the questions asked in the opening paragraph: “Yes, there is space and opportunity to learn about leadership in the trenches.” As a Business Professional you need to remember that the trenches serve as a school where we learn.  In Zulu they say: “Ufunda kuze ufe.”  It means we learn until we die, even in the trenches of corporate South Africa.

Author & Contributor: Hermann Du Plessis – Founder & Director at Themba Thandeka Leadership Institute – LinkedIn Bio:

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