CHESS Conference: Leadership Lessons From Keni Thomas

Keni Thomas gave an inspirational speech relating his experience as an army ranger to leadership.  Thomas was involved in the "Black Hawk Down" mission, a raid that turned into a 18 hour fire-fight in which 20 US Soldiers were killed and 78 were wounded.  The mission was the basis for the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.

Thomas and his fellow soldiers not only survived, but held their ground and fought off their Somalian enemies.  Thomas paints in vivid detail how a culture of leadership enabled his regiment to prevail under the most difficult of circumstances.  He explains that leadership boils down to one key element: setting a good example.  The actions of each individual in a group, organization, or community impact everyone else in that group.  The actions of the directors or executives of these groups are especially impactful.  By setting a good example leaders set the tone for everyone in the group.

Thomas explains that the army rangers have a set of procedures for each task which are called SOPs: Standard Operating Procedures.  While each ranger may have their own ideas about how to best accomplish certain tasks, the SOPs have been carefully vetted and tested.  The Sergeants set the tone and follow the SOPs.  When a Sergeant skips a step or allows that to happen, that's called complacency, and it is a breakdown of leadership.

By setting a good example leaders teach others in the group how to lead.  Thomas describes a fellow soldier, Floyd, who was a scrawny kid who had only been in the service for 6 months.  Floyd was the regiment's weakest link, he lacked maturity and struggled on training missions.  In spite of this, the Sergeant did not punish or berate Floyd for his inability to keep up, instead he berated Thomas and another soldier, both who ranked above Floyd.  He understood that Floyd would work harder and grow only if other soldiers set a proper example of diligence and maturity.

By demanding that all of his soldiers act according to a certain standard, the Sergeant ensured that they were prepared when faced with extreme circumstances.  One cannot predict when a difficult situation will arise, one can only train and prepare in case it does.  Leadership is about setting a good example and demanding that those around you do so as well.  Doing this will ensure that you, your company, organization, or group will be prepared for whatever obstacles stand between you and your goal.

It's worth listening to Keni Thomas's song Not Me, which he played for us after his speech.  The song embodies a lot of the principles which he puts forth.  Thanks for the inspiration Keni!

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