A Leader?

A Chief Who Asks the Warriors to Do What They Will Not Do Is No Longer Chief

Amazonian Xingu Tribal Leader

By Oliver Cummings

The story

I am not certain that this story happened just the way it was told; but I am sure it makes an important point for anticipating, planning, and acting with the future in mind.

It was a crappy day in 1943 in the foothills of the Apennines near Florence. There was a house up on a high hill about a mile away from where the company was bivouacked and recon had informed the officers that it was full of enemy soldiers.

The recently installed Second Lieutenant, a replacement for one that was killed some days earlier, called upon Dad, a platoon sergeant, to assemble his squad and “take that house up the hill.” Dad surveyed the situation and concluded quickly that the mission would be disastrous. There was no real cover going up the hill and the location of the house gave its occupants a wide, clear field of fire. Certainly the Americans were being observed now and just as certainly if they maneuvered to move up the hill they would be seen early in the process, with no place to go if they came under fire.

This new shave-tail Lieutenant had postured as a hardass, something that didn’t impress my years-older and battle-hardened father. He saluted. “Yes, Sir.” And he turned smartly and marched off toward where his platoon was in repose.

He called his squad together and had them fall in with their gear, in formation, in the open field in front of the bivouac area. When the twelve men in his squad had assembled, Dad called them to attention facing the direction of the house on the hill, had them dress the formation and called, “About face.” Then he started calling cadence as he marched the men directly away from the objective.

Seeing the odd sight of men marching as if on a parade field here in the middle of a real shooting war, the Lieutenant ran out and fell in step with Dad. As they marched along, the Lieutenant said, “What the hell are you doing, Sergeant?”

“I’m going to take that house back there?” Dad said with a jerk of his thumb over his left shoulder.

“Just how the hell do you think you’re going to do that?”

“I’m going around the world to get there.”

With that the apoplectic Lieutenant halted the squad, dismissed them and took Dad up to the command post where the Company Commander, a respected Major, stripped him of his stripes for insubordination. The busting back to PFC stuck, but the squad did not have to pursue taking the house and later that morning an air force support sortie bombed the house and cleared the way for the Company to take the hill without much of a fight.

The Point of the Story.

Think about the foolish things a leader can do when they are faced with a crisis:

  • Miss that the crisis is imminent (not looking at their environment)
  • Just keep doing what they’ve “always” done in the way they’ve “always” done it (being stuck in the past)
  • Let the boss worry about it (failing to take ownership for their unit)
  • Assume it’s not going to affect us (failing to recognize how things are related to their business)
  • So busy they ignore it until its too late to adapt (being stuck in today)

And, there are more.

So, what is a manager to do?

  • SCAN for signals of change. These signals may or may not be expected. If unexpected, they need to trigger careful consideration.
  • CONSIDER the implications of the signals.
  • PLAN by considering alternatives in light of some of these signals. Approach the signals as a mandate to think wider and differently.
  • DECIDE how to react in the near term.
  • EXECUTE the “do now” plans and gather the resources that will be needed if contingency plans have to be used.

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