Foxhole Leadership: Not Just for the Military

Leadership By Walking AroundHave you ever dug a foxhole?  If not, let me paint the picture for you.  This is a rectangular hole.  Roughly the length and width of a standard coffin (the irony of which is not lost on most infantrymen), the foxhole is dug to approximately five feet of depth.  This is shallow enough to allow for gun emplacements to be constructed and adequate cover to be built over and around it, yet deep enough to protect most of one’s body from direct fire or shrapnel.  Lovely image, huh?

Several months ago, I found myself once again enthralled by the WWII miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”  Both flicks capture unbelievably well the feel of soldiers and Marines fighting the Germans and Japanese, respectively.

One aspect of both films that holds particular relevance to modern leadership revolves around the foxholes.  Time and time again throughout each miniseries, the grunts (slang for infantry, a.k.a., ground pounders) are huddled in their foxholes, keeping watch for enemy advancement, tending to their decrepit conditions (frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge or jungle rot in the monsoons of the South Pacific), and choking down their rations between firefights.  Enter their leader, whether an officer or a sergeant, moving from fighting position to fighting position, checking on the health, welfare, and ammunition supplies of each soldier.

It’s the battlefield equivalent of “leading by walking around.”  But if you look carefully, it highlights a couple key points that are applicable to all leadership, military or within a civilian organization:

  • Have a purpose – In making the rounds among the foxholes, the military leader isn’t simply doing it to look good.  He has a definitely goal, to check on the the health, welfare, and ammunition supply of his men.  So, too, in civilian organizations leaders ought to know why they are visiting their people’s cubicles.  Just checking in may be a good reason, but nothing is worse than having a leader “drop in” and not know why they are there.
  • Check in, don’t move in – In any war film, pay attention to the amount of time a leader spends with each of his troops.  He checks in, asks for the pertinent information, perhaps makes small talk for a minute or so…..and then he moves on.  Recognize that as a leader (no matter how close you are with your subordinates), there is still a difference between you and them.  Respect that distance, and don’t overstay your welcome.
  • Leave them an open invitation – Clearly if your people are awaiting a charge from the enemy, you need for them to stay put in their foxholes.  But let them know that you are available for counsel should they need it, and the situation is appropriate for taking them “off the Thin Red Line.”

Not all aspects of military leadership and culture are applicable outside the uniformed services, but you might be surprised with how many parallels can be drawn between the two worlds.  Take some time to consider this example of “leadership by walking around.”  And if it fits, as you train new leaders in your organization, show them a clip from either of these amazing miniseries.  In doing so, you will engage and inspire them to be stronger leaders.

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