If you have seen the film or red the book 'American Sniper,' you should see a familiar pattern emerging. A pattern seen often in many modern war films. This pattern is often a heroic depiction of the men and women who fight our wars and the pervasive nature of evil doers outside our borders. While these men and women have been seen as heroes in the media, they were often deeply flawed in reality. This pattern is true of many of our leaders throughout history. The reality is nothing is what it seems. My name is Gary Xavier and I am a former Marine Scout Sniper and this blog post will cover 3 things leaders should be aware of when they look at the people and lives they lead.
1. Are you producing sheep, wolves or sheep dogs as a leader?
A scene in the film, 'American Sniper' shows Chris Kyle as a child eating with his brother and father. His father proceeds to give them a life lesson about the kind of people they should become. "Sons, there are three types of people in this world, sheep, wolves & sheep dogs." This metaphor not only describes the kind of people that exist and who we should strive to be, but also should help leaders look deep at who is in your organization and what kind of people you are producing.
What is a sheep?
The word describes this very well, but a sheep is a person who constantly appears and feels like the victim. They are powerless to help others and just live day to day with no thought of the future. They just hope a wolf doesn't kill them.
Are you producing sheep?
You are producing sheep if your employees/subordinates/team mates refuse to speak to you. You hear about problems in passing and from other people besides the source. You are most likely struggling with innovation because you've created a cohort of 'yes' people. Your employees don't talk much to one another and there are cliches emerging. Your people are starting late and leaving early. They are asking for more and more time off for reasons that have nothing to do with vacation or illness. You are producing sheep if your business feels comfortable for you, but not for everyone else, which might make you a wolf.
What is a wolf?
A good example of wolf creation is in the film, 'Wolf of Wall Street.' Another is the Enron scandal, but in 'American Sniper' one of the leaders of the insurgency maims and murders innocent people for simply talking to Americans. There is a scene where a young boy is murdered with a power drill through his head. This is a wolf.
Are you producing wolves?
Are you producing people who will do anything to win? Anything! There is a different between tenacity and evil will. If your team is betraying fellow team mates, lying to customers and deceiving leaders, you're producing wolves. If you find yourself scared of your own team, you're producing wolves. If there is an employee gunning for your position and trying to capitalize on any failure you produce, you're producing wolves. Will your team leave at the drop of a dime to accept another position from a competitor simply because of an argument with a manager? Be careful, you may be producing wolves. And once wolves taste blood, it is very difficult to make them sheep dogs.
What is a sheep dog?
In the film, 'American Sniper' Chris Kyle is constantly positioned as a man vigilant of all evil going on in the world. Whether or not this is true of how Kyle actually was in reality, the example is a good one. Kyle was a sheep dog. He protects the sheep and has the courage to fight off the wolf without becoming either.
Are you producing sheep dogs?
Is your team lazer focused on the cause of your organization and will defend it from anyone who tries to compromise it? Does your team protect one another in social and work environments? Are you giving awards or praise to employees because your leaders never desire credit? Are your customers happy with your service because your team is willing to serve them with all their effort? Are your profits going up and this fact has little impact on the overall drive of your team; because they are focused on how to grow and protect the cause you've laid out? If this is true, then you have a sheep dog culture of leaders.
2. Can you step down when it's time?
Ultimately, Chris Kyle would have preferred to stay an active duty Seal. In an interview with Conan O'Brien, he said he would have loved to join Seal Team 6 (he was in Seal Team 3). However, something was happening to Kyle's life: he was losing his family. Since Kyle is a sheep dog, he knows where priorities are. He was in danger of becoming a wolf, but he said no, it's time to move on.
There are countless examples of men and women who have sacrificed everything they truly love, to do the work they consider their life's work. My question is this, if your family or the people you love get sacrificed for your work, would that have been preventable if you you actually communicated the importance of that work? If it is work worth doing, they will push you to do more of it. They will not tear you away from it.
The problem leaders face when they are successful is knowing when to step down and focus on other things. Bill Gates knew the value of this. He was by no means out of his prime and frankly, Microsoft could use him again, but he knows where the work worth doing is. As a leader, know why you do the work you do and if that work is worthy of your time, communicate with those you love about what it will take. Be honest and be real about it. And do it early. This way, when the end comes, you can step down and not feel like you cratered everything truly important.
3. Will you serve those who have gone before and after you?
Chris Kyle was facing issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but not for the people he killed, but for the people he could not save. Kyle referenced this reality in several interviews. When Kyle left the military, the people he protected went away as well. When you're a sheep dog with no sheep to protect or wolves to fight, you have zero purpose. He needed more people to protect, so he protected men who served in combat and suffered from the horrors of combat.
What will be your final chapter as a leader? Will people who served your organization know you to be a guide and mentor for people willing to become sheep dogs? Or will you fade away into obscurity? Ernest Hemingway said, "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." Hemingway was referring to writing, but this is absolutely true of leadership. You do not become a master leader and then step down. There is no such designation. We are the the leader we set out to be and this should produce a better world for us having cared enough to lead others. I feall as though the act of stepping away when you have had great success is the only mark of a master leader. George Washington set this example for us.
Your organization or team should have alumni, not passed employees or former team mates. The word alumnus means "pupil" and is derived from a verb alere which means "to nourish." Are you creating alumni in your organization? The only way to nourish these pupils is for you to build work that serves their desires when you're together and to stay in contact with them after they leave. Stay in contact and make sure they know that there time with you and your team will always be remembered. Look back on any experience you had that left a mark on who you are. You may often fantasize about returning to that time and place. At times, this is the military for me. Marines are unique in that when I meet a 92 or 18 year old marine, we still have a connection. The popular quote, "Once a Marine always a Marine" is not a fantasy drummed up by recruiters. It is imprinted on the minds, hearts and bodies of men & women who had the privilege to serve. This is the heart of creating alumni vs. passed participants.
Are you a sheep, wolf or sheep dog? What will you produce when people come in contact with you? And if you claim to be a sheep dog, will you have the boldness to kill the wolves and the empathy to protect the sheep? Is this an idealistic view of Chris Kyle and Leadership? Yes. Chris Kyle was a normal man in an extraordinary position. Leaders are men & women who see the opportunity of their time and either are fit for that opportunity or not. Leaders are ambitious people. They are not saints. They are people who demand much from their life, but how else can we view leadership but in an idealistic manner? When we choose to lead, we choose to be genuine with the way we see the world even though the world is full of fakers. We choose to serve even thought the world is full of self-serving humans. We choose to be a legacy builder for our team and for ourselves despite leaders leaving a legacy of destruction. The reality facing leaders is can you admit you are mortal, but you demand being a person who can lift people to a higher place? Better than you?
Gary Xavier is a former Marine Sniper, PGA Golf Professional, martial artist, business writer and professional leadership speaker who inspires bold leadership in organizations in the corporate and education sectors. To see Gary's keynote list click here.