What's your personal leadership maxim? - SmartBrief

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What’s your personal leadership maxim?

5 min read


The following is an excerpt from Mike Figliuolo’s book “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” Figliuolo is a regular SmartBlogs contributor.

Leaders have to make choices. Many times those choices are painful. The decisions a leader makes can affect dozens to thousands of people. Sometimes the results of a leader’s actions are spectacular. Other times the results are spectacular disasters. Nonetheless, leaders must make decisions and act.

Having a maxim (which is a personal rule of conduct or behavior) focused on forcing action is powerful. It will move you from analysis to activity. It will help you be decisive. It should reduce your fear and uncertainty and serve as a clear reminder of how to act during uncertain times.

My decision-making maxim came from the lips of one of the greatest military leaders in history: “In case of doubt, attack!” — General George S. Patton III

Besides the fact that I like the quote, the maxim elicits strong emotions for me. When I was in the Army, I was a tank platoon leader. I studied Gen. Patton a great deal during both my time at West Point and during my initial armor training. I internalized the notion that the worst action you can take on the battlefield is to take no action at all.

During one of my field training exercises as a platoon leader, I had to employ this maxim. Our war game scenario required us to charge across a long, open battlefield to find and destroy the opposing force. My tank was the lead tank of the lead platoon of the lead company of the lead battalion in the brigade combat team. We were the tip of the spear of a 400-vehicle unit.

As we sped across the battlefield, we approached a set of hills. There were several passes through those hills to choose from. During our planning before the battle, my commander and I decided I would lead us through a specific pass because it provided the safest and fastest route. As we raced toward the hills however, I was unable to tell which of the passes was the one we had chosen during our planning session.

I was faced with a difficult set of choices. I could have stopped, pulled out my map, and figured out which pass was correct. This would have stopped all units behind me, leaving 400 vehicles and their crews sitting in the open subject to enemy fire, but it would give me the time I needed to identify the right pass. My other choice was I could keep rolling at 40 miles per hour and take my best guess as to which pass was the correct one. That option would keep the brigade moving. It also meant I might lead us into the wrong pass, which could be a dead end.

In my moment of doubt I summoned the words of Gen. Patton and chose to attack. “Driver, go left! Take the left pass!” We attacked. We died — quickly. I should have gone right instead. Fortunately the units behind us saw the unfolding carnage of my unit being destroyed, and they decided to head toward the correct pass. They flooded through it and crushed the opposing forces on the other side.

I made a bad decision by going left. The choice of direction, however, was not the important decision. The true decision was whether to stop, analyze the map, and then choose a pass or to take my best guess as to which pass was the correct one and continue the attack.

While my company was dying in the left pass, it felt like I had made the wrong decision on that call as well. Upon reflection though I think my maxim served me well. Had I stopped to analyze the passes I could have gotten everyone behind me killed because they would have been sitting in the open, vulnerable to direct and indirect fire. By choosing to follow the maxim and attack, my unit died but the rest of the brigade survived and won the battle.

My decision created an outcome others could then analyze. They knew where the enemy was and which pass they had chosen to defend. I provided my colleagues with important additional data through my actions, and they were able to make better decisions based on new information.

I am not saying my choice of the wrong pass was responsible for us winning the battle. Heck, if I had chosen the right pass perhaps all of us would have survived. The bottom line is I made the best call I could based on my understanding of the situation.

Leaders make decisions. Those decisions are not always the correct ones but they are better than not making a decision at all. Had I abdicated my responsibility to make a decision, I would have risked the lives of the entire brigade. Better to choose wrong and have a few of us die than to not choose at all and invite certain death for everyone.

Gen. Patton’s guidance does not only apply in a tank. His advice makes for effective business decision-making too.

Let’s turn our attention to you. How do you spur yourself onward to action? What is your approach to decision-making? Are you aggressive? Do you make “gut” decisions or do you prefer to gather as much information as possible before making a call? Do you procrastinate? Are there certain types of decisions you find easier to make than others? Are there any types of decisions you hate making? You need to evaluate how you currently make decisions before articulating a maxim designed to focus your decision-making efforts.