A participant of an executive education program I ran several years ago asked me to retell a simple story I shared with his cohort. He said it stuck in his mind and he would like to share it with his junior leaders.

A very, very long time ago – I went through the rite of passage in the Army known as basic training (other services called this basic military training, or boot camp).  In hindsight, this was a significant time for me as it marked the transition to what would eventually become a 23 year career characterized by assignments across branches, becoming a ‘mustang’ (a commissioned officer who came up through the enlisted ranks).  It also led to the award of three academic degrees in business and organizational psychology, as well as leadership responsibilities well beyond what I would have been capable of had my life taken a different path.

At the time, however, I was a cocky 18-year-old certain that I would only do minimal service time, getting out as soon as possible with some college benefits.  Because of that attitude, I resented or was indifferent to most of the lessons that I could have taken from that transition period (discipline, followership, stoicism, perseverance to name a few).  There are a series of connected lessons though, that have echoed through the past three and a half decades – the story of which has found its way into most of the leadership development I have facilitated.

On a bitter cold day in the Missouri countryside, a group of my fellow trainees and I were digging holes in the frozen ground at a training site.  In the days prior to this activity, I made the mistake of coming to the attention of our Drill Sergeant by being a bit of a smart-aleck loud mouth.  Due to this, I had become his personal project, which meant I enjoyed a significant amount of his attention.

Naturally, I am digging this hole as slowly as I can without getting in trouble as I was certain that I would be required to fill it back in and dig another when finished.  Midway through the dig, however my Drill Sergeant came over and asked me a question that took me aback.  “Why are you digging this hole, Grojean (pronounced in heavy Cajun accent)?” My answer was simply “because you told me to, Drill Sergeant.”  Apparently, I could be somewhat trained and had learned to temper my attitude a little.

He followed up his first question by asking me if I understood why he had told all of us to dig these holes.  My response was honestly that I had no idea.  The Drill Sergeant said that if we looked across the 150 yard clearing in front of us, we should see some sandbagged positions.  Those were machine gun nests, he said. When we were done digging our “foxholes”, we would climb in them and those machine guns would shoot live bullets over our heads.  I don’t remember what the other trainees did at that point, but I was now digging with some vigor. This brings up the first significant lesson:

Tie your followers’ activities into something truly meaningful and they will give it full attention and energy (motivation).

When we finished digging our foxholes, he then told us to collect up branches, what leaves could still be found and surrounding vegetation to cover our positions.  His next question to me was the same as the first, “why are you doing that?”  This time, I gave a guess: “because if they can’t see us, they are less likely to hit us?”  Apparently that was the right answer because for a change I wasn’t dropped to give him push-ups.  Our foxholes were now wonderful examples of creative forestry artwork.  His uncharacteristic use of questions gave me the next significant leadership lesson:

If your people understand the reason they are doing something (intent), they are more likely to find better and more creative ways to make it work.

Finally, he told us to get out of our foxholes and walk with him across the clearing separating us from the machine gun nests.  This was counter intuitive to me, we had built those for protection and we were leaving that safety behind.  When we got to the other side of the field, he turned us around and told us to look back at our foxholes.  “How did you do?”

The answer was that we did pretty poorly (no matter how proud we had been of our work).  The camouflage presented nice, neat little piles of scrub that stood out from the surroundings.   They were perfect aiming points.  Then we saw that we had put the foxholes in the wrong place.  The cadre could have actually walked up a dry creek bed to our right, and we would never have seen them until they were dropping rocks on our heads.  His lesson to us was that we would never know how good our fighting positions were until we had looked at them from the likely “enemy” avenue of approach.

This stuck in my head for years as I have seen leaders become so set in their own minds, desires and plans – that they fail to realize that is only half the battle.  They must look at what they are trying accomplish from many viewpoints; that of their followers, that of the leaders above them, that of their clients / customers, that of their competitors and all of this ultimately considered in the context of the strategy.  This brings us to the third and most significant lesson.

Self and situational awareness are critical to leadership impact. Leaders must examine their strategies and plans from every possible angle, ensuring best fit to the situation and the greatest likelihood of success.

Looking at your leadership from the perspective of all the stakeholder groups mentioned above is climbing out of the foxhole built in your mind.  This is especially difficult as many times our leadership intentions become the Maginot Line of foxholes; beautifully built, seemingly impregnable.  It is hard to climb out of such a safe and secure place – but we can only truly be effective once we do so.