Leadership Lessons from a Paratrooper
I know of a paratrooper who came from the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. My earliest leadership lessons came from him.
He, himself, learned from one of the most recognized military leaders of his time. This leader, who appeared on the 1964 cover of Time Magazine, was famous for leading a coup, probably the only bloodless coup in military history. The aim of the coup was to make his country, Laos, into an Asian Switzerland, neutral, free of monarchy, western influence and socialist control. It led to a Geneva peace agreement, but neutrality was only on paper. Laos is now one of the five socialist states remaining in addition to Vietnam, North Korea, China and Cuba.
The captain who led the coup was eventually exiled to France and passed away in January of this year.
And somewhat of an irony, the paratrooper, after a year spent inside a communist prison and another year inside a refugee camp with his pregnant wife and three young daughters, ended up in the very country that bombed his native land. This country was the enemy of his enemy.
The bombing is worth mentioning because there were over two million tons of bombs dropped every eight minute, for every 24 hours, for a period of nine years on Laos. As it violated the peace agreement, this bombing was done in “secret.” It became known as “The Secret War.” If by now, you haven’t guessed the major players, the enemy of his enemy was the United States. The enemy invading his country was the former North Vietnam, and this was the Vietnam War.
When I was entrusted to manage people, I adopted much of what I observed from the paratrooper into my leadership toolbox. Here are six.
Six Leadership Lessons from a Paratrooper
- You don’t have to be the first or the loudest to speak. In meetings, the paratrooper always sat towards the back of the room, intently listening, never interrupting. The position of where he sits is telling. He believed in giving others “room to be heard.” This made them feel validated, so when they asked for his opinion, they truly wanted to hear what he has to say.
- Authority through simplicity. He is impeccable with his words. They cut like laser through needless complexity, verbosity. He understood the elegance of simplicity. He spoke plainly and strove for understanding rather than impressing people with his standing and achievement. Yet, doing so showed great authority.
- Humility and self-effacing humor placate egos. It is easy to pick out a person with true humility. Only a truly powerful person is comfortable humbling himself. Affectations of humility are a turn off. In negotiations, being unassuming fools the other party into underestimating you, offering you an edge.
- Master your emotions. The paratrooper showed great restraint in dealing with difficult people. He is rarely reactive. Reactive people may win the battle, but it can cause them the war because they have not win the hearts of people.
- Be emotionally generous. The paratrooper always found value in any contentious point of view. I emulated this by always trying to catch my people doing something right. Validated people are hugely motivated to follow their leader.
- Operate with integrity. His words and actions aligned. Consistently. In situations where it had cost him or the opposite where it would’ve been of great gain to him, he stuck to his values. People trust your character, not your intentions.
In case you were wondering, the paratrooper who led the bloodless coup was Kong Le. You can read more on him and Laos in this CIA publication.
The other paratrooper is now old and his eyes are dimmed, but his mind is no less sharp. I have the privilege of learning from this paratrooper firsthand. The paratrooper is my dad.