Today’s post focuses on the importance of creating personal behavioral guidelines for yourself. It’s an excerpt from One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy here).
I have been in my share of uncomfortable situations where all the choices before me were painful ones. As much as I would have liked to have punted on the decision, I was the leader and I had to make the choice. Those uncomfortable moments were and continue to be perfect times to rely on my maxims to assist me with my decision making. Over the years I have learned to rely on a maxim for these purposes:
– What would Nana say? (For reference, Nana is my grandmother.)
The maxim is straightforward and simple. It evokes strong emotions for me. Whose nana wouldn’t stir emotions in their heart? This maxim enables me to step outside myself and ask what another person would think about my behavior. It is one thing to disappoint myself. It is another thing entirely to disappoint Nana. The thought of letting her down and doing something of which she would disapprove is a powerful deterrent to bad behavior for me. The maxim is easy to explain and understand. It is much harder to put into practice especially in high-pressure situations. Permit me to share some examples.
When I was a young platoon leader we routinely went on field exercises. When we would return from the field we would conduct an inventory of all our equipment. Upon returning to the motor pool after one field exercise, my inventory revealed we had lost a tool that operated the main gun on my tank. I thought “No big deal. I’ll ask the supply sergeant to order a new one.” When I went to him to place the order, he informed me that particular tool cost $2,600 to replace. That was 10% of my annual salary! Even worse, such a large financial loss would require a formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the loss and could result in disciplinary action. This was not exactly the way I had planned on starting my military career. I frantically went to my platoon sergeant, who was my second-in-command, for assistance.
He said “Don’t worry sir. Come see me after lunch.” Despite his assurances, I worried.
When I saw him after lunch he said “Go to the store and buy two Coleman propane camping stoves and I’ll have the tool in your hands by the end of the day. One of the guys in our sister battalion has an extra one but he wants a couple of field stoves for it.” I felt a mix of shock and relief. On the one hand I was being extorted for two stoves to get an extra tool from a guy in a sister unit. He had likely found that tool when someone else lost it on a field exercise. For all I knew it could have even been my lost tool as that unit had been out on the same field exercise. On the other hand, spending $80 on a couple of Coleman stoves to avoid a $2,600 wallop to my paycheck and a formal investigation seemed like a great deal.
I bought the stoves.
Upon reflection, my Nana would not be too proud of that decision. She would have told me to report the tool as lost and to find a way to resolve the problem within the unit’s regulations. Had I pursued that course of action, I might have seen other possible solutions like sending a search party down range to find the item, having all units conduct inventories to see if we had extras that had been previously found, or taking my lumps (both financial and disciplinary) like a man.
Instead I chose the easier path of buying my way out of a jam. In that stressful moment I did not see the real costs of my decision. By choosing that path and ignoring what Nana would tell me to do, I reinforced a culture where barter and white-lie extortion were acceptable behaviors. As an officer partaking in this gray market economy I was implicitly telling my soldiers it was okay for them to stock up on tools to “sell” for personal gain when someone else was in need of those items. Taking that logic one step further, I could have been encouraging soldiers to steal tools from other units to create increased demand for those items and command higher prices for them. If I had chosen to take my lumps I might have learned better ways to resolve the situation. I definitely would have strengthened rather than weakened the moral culture of my unit. I still regret my decision. The only redeeming aspect of that choice is it regularly reinforces my belief in the strength of my maxims to help me make the right decisions regardless of the circumstances surrounding them.
– If you want to create your own set of personal ethical guidelines, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at Audible.com. It will help you define what’s important to you and what your guidelines in life will be.
– Disclaimer: I have personally violated my self-defined ethical boundaries on many occasions. I’m not at all proud of it and I’ve admitted those times I have done so. My maxims are aspirational goals of behavior. I don’t always successfully live up to them (but I try). I didn’t want anyone thinking I believe I’m a saint who never does wrong.