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Why I Lead the Way I Do (A Leadership-Philosophy Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

Have you ever had someone you were meeting with for the first time hand you a sheet of paper that lays out the leadership principles they claim to operate by? I have. And, I’ve always been impressed with people forward-thinking enough to have their own personal leadership philosophy.

But I’m rarely impressed with what that philosophy actually is. You know, it’s usually just a bunch of trite platitudes and meaningless buzzwords that sounds something like this: my leadership philosophy is to synergistically leverage my organization’s unique capabilities and value-added activities to drive employee engagement, outside the box thinking, and ultimately maximize value creation.

Ugh! What does that even mean? I mean, that is so vague and impersonal, I could’ve taken any of the dozens I’ve been handed in the past and switched the names at the top and it would not have made a difference.

All right, a bunch of buzzwords on a piece of paper, could never adequately articulate the subtle, complex, and human nature of leadership. In fact, I think the only thing capable of that kind of finesse, is a story, or more likely, several stories, but let’s start with one as an example.

So, in 1995, Mike Figliuolo was a tank platoon leader in the Army, in charge of 15 soldiers and four tanks. Well in April of that year, his platoon was getting ready for a field training exercise out in Ft. Irwin, California.

So, imagine this 5-mile wide, 10-mile long training field, with real tanks. But using simulated weapons instead of shooting live ordinances at each other. So, it was basically a giant game of laser tag with tanks.

And as fate would have it, Mike’s tank would be the first tank among 400 vehicles going into battle in a wedge formation on his side of the field. So, of course, before the exercise, Mike sat down with his commanding officer and looked at the map of the field to figure out where the high ground was and the best way to win the exercise.

So, when the exercise started, Mike’s tank sped out onto the field as planned. But, I guess a battlefield rarely looks like it does on a map, especially when you’re looking at it through the tiny crack in a hatch while moving 40 miles per hour and being shot at. So, when they got to the hills, Mike wasn’t sure which way to go. So he had a decision to make.

Option one, he could stop the tank, pull out the map, and figure out the right way to go, which might take, I don’t know 30 seconds. Option two, he could just make an educated guess, keep moving forward, and take his chances. Mike chose option two. He yelled out, “Driver, go left.” So, the driver turns left.

Less than a minute later, the light in Mike’s tank starts flashing, which means, you just got hit with a laser. You’re dead. Those guys had to stop the tank, pop the hatch, and get out. They’re done for the day.

Well, of course, tank number two had turned left right behind him. So a few seconds later, their light started flashing. And then a few seconds after that, tank number three got hit, too.

But the guys in the fourth tank saw three tanks turn left and get virtually shot and 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 battle.

And that was an important lesson for Mike. I mean, he made a mistake that day. He should have turned right instead of left. But that mistake taught him the value of decisiveness. You know, in war, and in business, it’s often better to make the wrong decision quickly, than to make the right decision slowly. Right? Bad decisions usually become evident before too long and can be corrected. But indecision can cost you the battle because while you’re studying the problem, your opponents are still moving forward.

So, now as a business leader, he rarely falls victim to the analysis paralysis that troubles so many leaders today. You know, by comparison, his decisions can seem quick, but he also has a higher tolerance for mistakes, as long as people learn from those mistakes. And sharing his story of that field training exercise is one way he helps his partners and clients expect that kind of decisive leadership behavior from him and plan accordingly.

And a story like that, of your own, can do the same for you. So, to look for personally defining moments, like this, in your life as a leader, ask yourself these questions: what was your biggest leadership mistake, and what did you learn from it? What leadership decision are you most proud of and why? What leader do you most admire and what was the moment you realized you did? And what one or two principles are you least willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals and why? So, pick one of the moments you thought of from that list of questions and build a story around it. That will be your personal leadership philosophy story.

Okay, in the last lesson, we’ll talk about building a story to convince other people to come and work for you. A recruiting story.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith