Rather than tell you how many years ago, I’ll just use “a few years back” to share this leadership lesson received when I was a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I’ll never forget the day when my wife and my mom pinned the gold bars on my shoulders. It felt like such a long way from the days of “Private First Class Chamberlain.” It was a very exciting and proud moment for me. And in the back of my mind, I knew the incredible responsibility of being a leader was pinned on my shoulders as well.
For those who have been through the various commissioning programs such as West Point, OCS, or ROTC, you know the enormous amount of leadership training you receive to prepare you for your first Platoon Leader position. Whether it was studying the Army’s Leadership manual (FM 22-100) or the actual demonstration through field problems and exercises, each cadet receives a tremendous amount of leadership training prior to commissioning. That leadership training extends to the course immediately after commissioning as well, the Officer Basic Course (OBC). The primary focus of OBC is the Lieutenant’s Branch training and instruction. For me, it was Field Artillery OBC at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Outside of the Branch specific training at OBC, I do remember a course with one particular instructor that still resonates with me today. The course was on ethical decision making and the instructor was Chaplain (MAJ) Huggler.
While there were many elements of this course that were incredibly important and aligned each Lieutenant’s moral compass for decision making, one particular thing Chaplain (MAJ) Huggler said still echoes with me to this day. He said “When you are faced with difficult decisions, and as leaders you will, ask yourself one thing to help align your compass……what’s the right thing to do?” You may have been expecting something more profound or perhaps a reference to a suggested book that can help you make critical decisions “in 7 easy steps!” Sorry to disappoint, but think about “what’s the right thing to do?” for a moment. What better way to help your moral compass align?
All leaders face the hourly, daily, and weekly arrivals at a decision intersection. Most decisions are simple and we rely on our technical skills and past experiences to determine which direction to turn, proceed forward, or in some cases turn around completely. Unfortunately, there are times when the intersection is not quite as clear as we would like it to be. The lack of clarity could be that you are outside the scope of your technical skills or you don’t have the past leadership experiences to reflect upon. Typically, we find ample information or guidance from others to help us make those decisions. Chaplain (MAJ) Huggler wasn’t necessarily referring to “what’s the right thing to do?” as a technical question such as choosing the right fuse for an artillery round or choosing the right marketing strategy for a new product. He was referring to those other intersection decisions that test you as a leader. The decisions that could have significant health and safety implications. The decisions that have ethical and/or moral challenges. Or perhaps it’s the leadership decisions where you may veer off the course of treating people with dignity and respect if you choose the wrong direction.
For those intersections where the decisions aren’t easily made because the results may have outcomes described above, ask yourself simply “what’s the right thing to do?” In almost every situation, your life experiences, your beliefs, your faith, your values and principles, and your upbringing will ensure your compass points in the right direction when you answer. I’ve always tried to ask myself this question when faced with tough decisions; I hear Chaplain (MAJ) Huggler echoing in my head each time. And I provide this same advice to others when they seek my guidance with tough decisions. I don’t claim this will provide all the solutions at every decision intersection. But it is a simple way to ensure your compass is aligned properly as you move through the intersections of leadership.