“Soldiers don’t do stupid things”: Everyone sees situations differently and based on what they interpret, their actions will be a perfect match for what they see.

When I was a young combat engineer officer I was very lucky to have some wise and very experienced sergeants and warrant officers around me. They not only took the time to teach me technical aspects of bridge building and bridge-demolition, mine warfare, and explosive ordnance disposal, they also taught me some fundamental aspects of leading people. The most impactful lesson for me can be summed up as, “soldiers don’t do stupid things.”

“What are you talking about Sergeant Major, that looks pretty dumb to me!” We were on an exercise at Fort Lewis and I was referring to the fact that my troops were placing large bridge parts off the road and in a field that was off limits for environmental reasons. I was about to go bark at them for being stupid and lazy.

“Well, Sir, do you do stupid things? No! What you do will make complete sense to you based on how you see it. Why don’t you go ask why they’re doing that?” His advice has saved me countless embarrassing and credibility-eroding moments when leading people.

What I discovered on the bridge site was that they needed room on the road to build the bridge and that the field was a perfect staging ground for the parts. From their point of view, what they were doing made sense. By putting the big parts off the road they had more room, it was safer and it was worth the muddy mess it would create (the reason why they thought I said it was off limits). It was clear to me that I failed to tell them why the field was off limits. Had they known it was off limits because of environmental factors they would not have placed bridge parts in the field.

In that moment I realized that everyone sees situations differently than me and based on how the situation seems to them, their actions will make complete sense to them. It was one of those revelations that changed my world. I got “other” focused, instead of being “self-focused” and started to be curious about what people see and why they see it that way. Eureka! I had found the source of people’s actions. All I have to do is understand and see things through others and then offer another way to look at it (if that is needed.)

People’s thinking, attitudes, and actions will be a match for how the situation is seen by them. Finding out what that is, is the first job of a transformational leader.

Consider this analogy: Imagine you are seated at a table with two other people: one juggles for a living and the other is the executive chef at the Ritz Carlton. You then put three eggs on the table. How does the juggler see those eggs? He doesn’t see eggs, instead they show up for him as items to juggle and he may actually start juggling. The chef, on the other hand, will likely get annoyed at why someone would be crazy enough to juggle the ingredients for the omelette he sees in those eggs. At Insigniam, we would say, the context is decisive. Meaning that the context of “juggler” (the lens through which the juggler sees the world) will shape his world in such a way that everything will show up as things to juggle.

Does the following sound familiar in your organization:

Operations: “I don’t understand why the engineers get us to fill out these long-winded forms before we start the job? Don’t they know it slows us down?”

Engineers: “Those ops guys are cowboys – they always just rush into jobs…don’t they know that we’re liable for pipeline ruptures and that those forms helps us monitor risk?”

Both want the company to succeed and have different contexts on how to do that. The ops team possesses a context of something like: “how many jobs can we do a day”. The engineers have a concern or context “we need protect the company from a catastrophic event that could damage the company permanently”. The actions and attitudes of both groups are consistent with their unique way of looking at how the company can succeed. Their respective actions make sense to themselves (and maybe not by others.)

I see this situation playing out in organizations that are struggling with performance gaps. For the most part, people want to contribute to the mission. They’re just looking at how to fulfill the mission through their own unique set of lenses.

Think of a situation in your organization where from your perspective you see stupidity, laziness, disrespect, cowboy-like etc, etc. The astute leader asks, “How must this group see the circumstances such they act a certain way?” I think you might be surprised at how easy it is to resolve longstanding feuds.

By remembering the idea that “soldiers don’t do stupid things”, the chef might see and appreciate that eggs might also be perfect objects for juggling and would understand why the juggler was throwing his ingredients in the air. By setting your own viewpoint (context) aside (just for a moment) and be willing to find out how others see the world, I am sure you will discover that their actions aren’t lazy, stupid, or disrespectful, but rather a match for how they see the world. This perspective could provide you with beginnings of a breakthrough in shifting the actions of your organization.

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