Long before I became a leader in the Anabaptist community, the story of the My Lai massacre shaped my philosophy of leadership. There are several things I learned from this tragic military event.
- The true character of a leader is revealed in time of stress and conflict.
- As a leader, sometimes you have to know when to go off script and break the rules.
- Don’t let conflict become your crisis.
- Own the consequences.
If you are not familiar with the My Lai massacre, here is what happened: During the Vietnamese war, American soldiers killed between 200 and 500 unarmed civilians at a small village named My Lai.
U.S. troops frequently attacked the province of Quang Ngai, as it was thought to be a stronghold for Viet Cong (VC) forces. In March 1968, a platoon received word that VC guerrillas had taken cover in the Quang Ngai village of Son My. Led by Lieutenant William L. Calley, soldiers entered the nearby settlement of My Lai, looking for enemy combatants. They found unarmed villagers, most of them women, children and old men.
There was a strong sense from army commanders that all who were found in My Lai could be considered VC or active VC sympathizers. The soldiers were ordered to destroy the village, and they did.
The soldiers acted with brutality, raping and torturing villagers before killing them and dragging dozens of people, including young children and babies, into a ditch and executing them with automatic weapons.
Reportedly, the massacre only ended when an Army helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, landed his aircraft between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire if they continued their merciless attacks. On this day, Warrant Officer Hugh was the only leader in a group of several dozen men.
While nothing in our day-to-day business operations rises to the level of a bloody massacre, our actions or inactions can destroy lives. When leaders fail to act with integrity or lack strong moral character, it affects the entire organization, including the people who work for and with us.
In times of stress, we have to carefully ensure we don’t revert to our base nature, or at the very least, we need to be aware of how well we handle stress. If we don’t, our frustration and anger can boil over, causing discontent and unrest throughout the organization.
Sometimes, as leaders, we have to challenge perceptions, popular culture or even statistical data that our gut tells us is wrong. If we see something harmful or dangerous happening in our work places, we have to go off script, we have to break protocol and, if necessary, the rules. Whether it is discrimination, abuse, theft, or negligence, we can’t turn our back on the problem. We have to land our chopper in the middle of the situation and call a timeout.
Often, as leaders, we let someone else’s conflict become our crisis. In other words, we start to believe the hype. This is especially easy in the social media era. Fiction becomes fact, and as leaders, we react when we should just take a deep breath, assess the situation and develop a reasonable response.
In any armed conflict, destroying the village and killing babies is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Yet in some ways the My Lai massacre is analogous to how we respond to workplace issues, especially those brought to our attention by social media. Our responses are not measured. We go for the nuclear option.
Finally, a leader of strong moral character owns the consequences for his or her team. As leaders we often get paid more, receive more of the credit, and have a lot more autonomy than those we supervise. We need to man or woman-up when we make a leadership call.
Don’t blame it on your team, don’t blame it on company policy, don’t even blame it on the boogie. Any order or directive can be questioned when character or integrity is at stake.
As leaders we are called to make the hard choices and we have an obligation to deal with the consequences of those choices. At times that means we have to be willing to go off script and do what is right, even if that puts us personally at peril.