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A Leadership Philosophy Story (An Example)

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

Number 9 in the list of top 10 leadership stories is a personal leadership philosophy story. It explains why you lead the way you do. And my favorite example is from a guy named Mike Figliuolo.

Back in 1995, Mike was a tank platoon leader in the Army. And he was in charge of fifteen soldiers and four tanks. Well, in April of that year, they were getting ready for a field training exercise out in Fort Irwin, California. There would be 800 tanks going into battle on a 5-mile wide, 10-mile long training field. 400 tanks on one side against 400 tanks on the other. So, it would be real tanks and a real field, but using simulated weapons. So, it was basically a giant game of laser tag with real tanks. And if your tank got hit with a laser, a light would start flashing to let you know you’d been hit.

Now, as fate would have it, Mike was commanding the first tank going into battle on his side of the field in a wedge formation.

So, of course, the night before, Mike and his commanding officer sat down to look at a map of the field to figure out the best strategy to take the high ground and win the exercise.

Well, the next morning, the exercise started, and Mike was in his tank speeding onto the field. But I guess a battlefield looks a little different on a map in a conference room than it does when you’re looking at it through the crack in the hatch bouncing along at 40 miles per hour and being shot at.

So, when they got to the first set of hills, Mike wasn’t sure which way to go. So, he had a decision to make. Option one: he could stop the tank, turn the light on, pull out the map, and figure out the right way to go, which might take, maybe 30 seconds.

Or, option two: he could make an educated guess and take his chances.

Mike chose option two.

He yelled out, “Driver, turn left!” So, the driver turned left.

A few seconds later, the light on his tank started flashing. They’d been shot. Obviously, that was the wrong decision. So, they had to pop the hatch and climb out. Those guys were done for the day. Well, a few seconds later, the second tank turned left behind him, and they got shot, too. Then tank number three. Same thing. But the guys in the fourth tank, saw three tanks turn left and get shot and “virtually” killed. They realized that was a mistake. So, tank number four turned right. And then 396 other tanks turned right. They took the high ground and won the exercise.

It was an important lesson for Mike. Yes, he made a mistake that day. But it taught him the value of decisiveness. In war, and in business, it’s often better to make the wrong decision quickly, than to make the right decision slowly. Life has a way of bringing bad decisions to your attention before too long, and they can be corrected. But indecision can cost you the battle because while you’re studying the problem your opponents are still moving forward. I mean, just imagine what would have happened if Mike had stopped the tank to check the map. There would have been 400 tanks stopped on the field like sitting ducks getting fired at.

That experience definitely influenced Mike’s personal leadership philosophy which, not surprisingly, is decisive. Today, Mike makes well-informed decisions. But he doesn’t fall victim to the analysis paralysis that plagues so many organizations today. By comparison, his decisions can seem quick. But he also has a higher tolerance for mistakes than a lot of other leaders do, as long as people learn from those mistakes.

And sharing his story of that training exercise is one way he helps his partners and clients understand and appreciate that kind of leadership behavior from him. It explains why he leads the way he does. And it shares some of his hard-won leadership wisdom with anyone who hears it. So, it’s a great story to tell a new team when you first start to work with them, so they’ll know what kind of leadership to expect from you. Or as a lesson in leadership when you find yourself in a teachable moment.

A story like that of your own can do the same for you.

Okay, that was the last example. In the next lesson, we’ll turn our attention to how to choose the right story at the right moment.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith