From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Leadership, Whose Way?

If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you’re right.

Mary Kay Ash

I arrived as a new, nineteen-year-old second lieutenant in the Philippines soon after WWII ended. It was my responsibility to support my mother, my thirteen-year-old sister, and my five-year-old brother. My dad had moved out just as I graduated from high school.

I was in charge of sixty-two men in my platoon. Our assignment was to do geodesic surveying in the jungle to produce better maps. Since my immediate superior was far away in Manila, I felt the weight of total responsibility not only for surveying accuracy, but also for the safety, food, and shelter of my men.

To top it off, I had a big problem. I’d just returned from a “leadership meeting” in Manila, where the colonel taught what seemed wrong to me. He ordered, “Command, don’t ask, a man to do something. Don’t ask for advice from anyone, not even your platoon sergeant. That shows your weakness. Never admit a mistake. You wouldn’t be an officer if you weren’t better than your men. So act it!”

I had been leading my platoon with the exact opposite style of leadership. My dad, an infantry major, had taught me “Your job is not to command; your job is to lead. Get all the input you can from everyone. Have the courage to admit an honest mistake. Be tough, but be fair. Above all, earn your men’s respect so they can have confidence in you.”

My dad had let me down hard by leaving our family in my care, and the Manila colonel obviously had a lot of experience. Should I change my style of leadership from what Dad had taught me?

Then there was an older man, Randall, busted from staff sergeant to private just before he was transferred to me. He had a surly attitude to go with his tough body and big mouth. He did everything he could think of to make my men lose confidence in me.

My platoon and I had just finished a tough job. We were all tired, dirty, and short of water, which was a heyday for Randall’s putting me down to the men.

I sent Andy, the red-haired sergeant of the second squad, to look for water along the road we planned to take. When Andy returned, he reported that he had found water and even recommended a swim at the river he’d found during his reconnaissance. I said, “Great!”

Less than a city block to the river, which was hidden by dense jungle, he’d found a delightful place. The river was relatively wide with a semblance of beaches on the far side and a rock cliff on our side.

After swimming, my sergeants—including red-haired Andy—and I were taking turns “life guarding” from on top of the cliff eighteen feet above the river, when Randall started yelling. “Lieutenant Hill, show us how you can dive!” The cliff was twice as high as the nine-foot diving board at my city pool, and my dives from it hadn’t been pretty. So I just ignored him.

“Lieutenant Hill, can’t you hear me? Lieutenant Hill, if you don’t dive, I’ll have to come up and throw you off. You don’t have your bars on now, sir, so you are fair game!”

Oh, why hadn’t I just dived? The knots in my stomach didn’t help as I stood up to meet him as he came up the cliff. To me he looked like a giant. As a youth I had been particularly small, so I had focused on wrestling to take care of myself.

Randall looked surprised when I grabbed his right arm and thrust out my left leg as he lunged at me. As he tripped over my leg, I saw him sail over the cliff. When he came up out of the river, the whole platoon was laughing uproariously . . . all but Randall.

Back up to the top of the cliff he came, face red as fire, hate in his eyes. As we crashed together, I got my left foot behind his right leg and came across with my right arm, elbow cocked. Down he went again! This time it was deathly quiet as Randall came at a dead run out of the water, swearing at the top of his lungs. I thought, I’ve had it. So when we collided, I flung my arms around him and hung on tight. As he pulled me off my feet, I wrapped my legs around him. If I went, he was coming with me! I saw his cocked fist—aimed at my nose.

Red-haired Andy, who had been lying on the cliff, had slid closer and planted both of his feet on us, his knees flexed. He let out a war whoop, straightened his legs, and I felt myself falling with Randall. We let go of each other and inverted, making headfirst dives into the water.

As I came up, I couldn’t help but laugh. And Randall? He started laughing, too. “Somebody pushed us!” The whole platoon cheered, and in that mad moment, Randall and I shook hands. It was a wonderful feeling—one that lasted—and it sure convinced me that my dad’s style of leadership was the right one after all.

Somehow I had carried the best of Dad within me. And knowing that he had guided me wisely was the beginning of the healing of our father-son relationship.

Louis A. Hill, Jr.

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