Coffee, Soldiers and 3 Leadership Lessons

large__6070707640One day, as I was enjoying a cup of coffee before a flight, I had the privilege to watch a group of soldiers at the boarding gate. They must have been on a United Nations peace-building mission. The over one hundred soldiers queued up, and soon the queue bundled up. Instinctively, starting from the top of the queue, every soldier placed his right hand on his mate’s right shoulder and pushed back half an arm’s length. Order was restored in the queue.

Soon thereafter, there was a boarding gate change and the same soldiers had to relocate to another gate. Did they all troop to the new gate? Amazingly, they did not! One soft command is all it took for them to ‘about-face’ and voila, the last man on the queue was now at the top. It was just fun to watch the spectacle.

This did not just happen as if by magic. They must have undergone a lot of training on how to exhibit disciplined behavior regardless of the external circumstances. What does this teach us about becoming better leaders?

“Quality is never an accident: It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution. It represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”-William A. Foster

1) Understand your environment

Leadership is all about your understanding of the present situation in relation to your history and future (vision). This does not come easily and you have to constantly adjust your sails to capitalize the most out of the wind powering your boat. You will have to learn new skills that will enable you to relate appropriately with your growing team. In a family, what worked for your two-year old toddler will not resonate with them when they become teenagers. The same applies to your team. Understand each individual before anything else.

2) Teams don’t just happen…

The soldiers were patient with each other as the changes were taking place. They did not squabble, as they knew what was going on was for the good of the team. It was clear that someone [or some people] had invested heavily in fostering oneness in these soldiers. You need to be an accessible leader for your followers to grow. Some members will learn fast or adopt new action readily. Others will take some time to appreciate the big picture. It is therefore important that you patiently build their skills, character and self-esteem.

3) Common values are critical

Finally, their behavior was guided by some common values or standards that were known to all of them. The soldiers were a team, and at that particular moment, they had to work as one to efficiently board onto the aircraft. The same applies to your followers. You must provide the leadership that embeds a value-system your team subscribes to. In addition, “to be the most influential  leader you can be, know your people and what drives them,” notes Tom Schulte in On Leadership and the Knucklehearted Leader


These three principles have to be re-visited regularly and fine-tuned to fit the current stage your organization is at. Like a rally car, you cannot expect the tires used on tarmac road to be effective on muddy, off-road tracks. The vehicle and engine may remain the same one on both terrains, but you need off-road tires to get the best out of your driving experience when out in the bush.

As a leader, do you fully understand your environment, your team and values? are you constantly monitoring the terrain and retrofitting your team with the right tires?

photo credit: Mechanekton via photopin cc


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  1. #1 by KimunyaMugo on June 1, 2013 - 6:16 pm

    Thanks. I think many an organization has risen or fallen at the team ‘hurdle’.

  2. #2 by Dan Forbes (@DanVForbes) on June 1, 2013 - 12:33 am

    Nice post and lessons. I could just visualize those soldiers making an about-face as you described it. You are so right, teams don’t just happen!

  1. Coffee, Soldiers and 3 Leadership Lessons | Lea...

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