When I was in high school and the service academy, I did what many aspiring military leaders do. I studied famous generals from history and extracted the lessons that I wanted to live and lead by. I compiled quotes from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon…Washington, Marshall, and Powell.
And of course, Patton. I had pages of Patton quotes. There was the “pint of sweat and gallon of blood” quote, the “good plan executed now” dictum, and “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” But here’s the quote that stuck with me the most:
“You are always on parade.”
I referenced it almost daily as a clear reminder that example is everything in leadership. [I even wrote about it in You Are Being Watched.] But now, 20 years later, I think Patton’s analogy has a serious flaw.
The Infallible Leader
Embedded in Patton’s quote is the idea that followers maintain a vigil of scrutiny, intolerant of mistakes and ready to discredit their leaders at the slightest slip. It feeds the belief that leaders must maintain a persona of infallibility, possessing total intellect and 100% confidence stemming from perfect experience. Vulnerability is not an option.
You may have experienced this in your career, thinking you have to get it all right or your followers will see right through you. Military units experience this often, as new commanders rotate in every two years and must do their very best to remain competitive.
But there are several downsides to a mentality of infallibility:
- Without failure, leaders will never achieve meaningful growth.
- Followers may observe the leader’s perfect standard and adopt the belief that they are in a zero-defect culture. Or worse, the leader directly applies his standard of perfection to the unit.
- Leaders who don’t want to hear when they’re wrong end up with followers who have no motivation to tell them when they are.
- Infallible leaders stifle creativity because they are not willing to present unrefined ideas for collaboration.
- Leaders with all the answers inhibit the intellectual capacity of the organization, creating followers who won’t speak their minds.
- Infallible leaders dilute the quality of their own ideas, discarding the good in hopes of the perfect.
The problem with comparing leadership to a parade is that parades are supposed to be perfect, but leaders can never be.
Leaders who lead like they’re on parade are afraid to be wrong because they feel vulnerable. In doing so, they miss an opportunity to showcase the most important aspect of leading…that we are human. All leaders will inevitably make mistakes, no matter how perfectly they think they must perform. So what’s the point in keeping up a façade of perfection?
Instead, try this:
- Acknowledge that it’s healthier and more effective to create a culture that is open to making mistakes but is committed to making them quickly and moving on.
- Ask for input, ideas, and dissent…you’ll create an atmosphere of inclusion that encourages followers to speak up when it really matters.
- Be transparent when you screw up…you’ll show your people you don’t expect perfection and teach them lessons they can avoid themselves.
- Be vulnerable…it just might inspire someone to find courage in an area they needed to grow.
So, is Patton’s quote irrelevant? Should we scratch it from the archives? No, it still sends a strong reminder that example overrides everything in leadership. Leaders just need to make sure their example includes the missteps along the way.
Questions for Leaders
- What effect could you have if you cared more about growing your followers than about protecting your reputation?
- Has your team learned how to endure failure by watching your example?
- In what ways could you use your faults as teaching points and help others to do the same?