A battlefield lesson on the value of decisiveness

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I think we all know that person at work who shows up on their first day with a piece of paper that has their entire leadership philosophy, values, or beliefs spelled out in just a few bullet points. And they make a point of sharing that document with everyone they meet on that first day. You know this person, right?

Let me tell you what I think about that guy.

I’m always impressed to find someone forward thinking enough to have one of those lists. I admit I never had the foresight to create one myself. But I also have to admit that I’m rarely impressed with what’s on their list.

It’s usually a bunch of vague, hackneyed platitudes and meaningless buzzwords. It’s the kind of list that anyone could agree with, and therefore, it doesn’t tell me a single unique thing about that person as an individual. And that’s probably why I never bothered to create one myself. I assumed it would be just as worthless as all the others I’ve seen.

Mike FigliuoloBut my guest today has a very different (and much more effective) method of coming up with that list of leadership beliefs — what he calls leadership maxims. His name is Mike Figliuolo. He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, a leadership development and training firm. And he’s the author of the book, One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership, which offers a refreshingly honest method to come up with a uniquely personal set of leadership maxims.

In his book, he offers the reader a set of very probing, personal questions about defining moments in their career. The questions are the same for everyone. But the answers, of course, are different. And those answers are essentially a story about critical successes, failures, or experiences that have shaped who you are as a leader today.

You then summarize each of those stories into a pithy phrase that evokes the memory of that story to you, and reminds you of the leadership principle you now operate by as a result. Presto! A one-page leadership philosophy that actually means something.

Mike joined me on the podcast this week to explain a little about how his method works. But mostly what I asked him to do is to share one of his own maxims and explain where it came from. The one we talked contains some inspired wisdom about the value of decisiveness that had never occurred to me before. I’ve always been a more deliberative decision maker, wanting to take my time to evaluate all the possible solutions before making a decision.

You can hear Mike tell the story in person by listening to the podcast, or read an excerpt of that story from his book below. Either way, it’s a lesson you’d be wise to learn from.

“One of my favorite decision-making maxims came from the lips of one of the greatest military leaders in history, General George S. Patton III:

In case of doubt, attack!

“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. My first job consisted of the tactical deployment of four M1A1 main battle tanks manned by fifteen dedicated soldiers. . .

“During one of my final field training exercises as a platoon leader. . . 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 . . . We were the true tip of the spear of a four-hundred-vehicle combined arms 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 through the hills. 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. The terrain rarely looks like the map, especially when you are moving at forty miles per hour, trying not to get shot by the opposing forces.

One Piece of Paper“I was faced with a difficult set of choices. I could have stopped my unit, pulled out my map, and figured out which pass was the correct one. This would have stopped the forward movement of all units behind me. That would leave four hundred 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 to keep rolling at forty miles per hour and take my best guess . . . In my moment of doubt, I summoned the words of General Patton and chose to attack. I yelled out,

‘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 had chosen the wrong pass. The choice of direction, however, was not the important decision in this situation. The true decision was whether to stop, analyze the map and terrain, 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. But upon reflection, I think my maxim served me well. Had I stopped to analyze the passes, I could have gotten everyone behind me killed as they were sitting in the open, vulnerable to direct and indirect fire. By my 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 that others could observe and analyze. They now knew where the enemy was and which pass they had chosen to defend. They also knew that the pass on the right was likely undefended. Through my actions, I provided my colleagues with important additional data, 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 our 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 in that situation, I would have risked the lives of the entire brigade. Better to choose wrong and have a few of us die than not choose at all and invite certain death for everyone.

That’s just one of Mike’s personal leadership maxims. You can read about the others in his book, and learn how to craft your own meaningful leadership maxims on one piece of paper.

PAS square profile Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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