I remember as a child playing Simon Says in the front driveway of my grandparent’s home.
“Simon says take one step forward.”
“Simon says put your hand on your head.”
“Ah! Simon didn’t say!”
Many of us initially think leadership looks a lot like a game of Simon Says. (Tweet This) Someone (the leader) tells us what to do and we do as we’re told.
Yesterday in class, my students were reflecting on the leadership of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers during the Civil War. When the 2nd Regiment was decommissioned, 120 men were reassigned to Chamberlain. Those men refused reassignment so they were taken under armed guard to Chamberlain. After 3 days without food, General George G. Meade of the Army of the Potomac instructed Chamberlain to “make them do duty or shoot them down the moment they refused.”
Meade believed that threats of harm should be enough to get soldiers to do as they are told. He believed in the Simon Says model.
Chamberlain disagreed. He fed the men and then painted a picture. Well, not a picture made with paint on canvas. But he created a compelling vision of what they could accomplish together. He used carefully chosen words to help them envision what the future could look like if they all worked together.
Chamberlain told them “Here you can be something. Here’s a place to build a home. It isn’t the land–there’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me, we’re worth something more than the dirt….What we’re fighting for , in the end, is each other….” (Useem, The Leadership Moment, p. 134).
When we discuss different approaches to leadership in class, many of my students make the assumption that military leaders rely on the Simon Says method to get the job done. While, I must confess that I know very, very little about the military, I’m not sure that the Simon says method is the only one used in the military.
I had the distinct honor of visiting the Army Fires Training School at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma just a few weeks ago. I met some really incredible men and women. And I heard many of them talk about the necessity of earning credibility with those they lead. They spoke passionately about living out the values in which they believe. Certainly, you want people who are well-trained and can respond to direct commands, especially when you’re in the midst of a crisis. But, I heard a lot more conversations that sounded like Chamberlain than Meade. Maybe they could give orders, but they didn’t seem to believe that’s always the most effective way to lead.
Painting a compelling vision is much more challenging than giving orders. (Tweet This)
It certainly requires more time and effort and thought. But in the end, it’s worth it. Don’t we all want to be a part of something bigger? Don’t we all want to contribute to something meaningful? Don’t we all want to invest our time and lives and energy in something that we believe?
And doesn’t painting a compelling vision support what we believe about how we are to live as followers of Christ? If we truly believe that each individual is created in God’s image and should be treated with dignity and respect, shouldn’t we share the vision rather than just giving orders? If we are to treat others as we want to be treated (and we want to work toward something meaningful), wouldn’t we help people understand the big picture they are working toward?
As a leader, I need to paint a picture that allows others to see the possibilities if we all work together. To return to the image of childhood games, it becomes more like a game of capture the flag than a game of Simon Says. In capture the flag we all know our roles. The entire team knows our goal and aim. We discuss and agree upon a strategy to reach the target. And when we all know the goal, we can each make split-second decisions as the situation changes. We don’t have to wait for “Simon” to tell us what we’re supposed to do.