Lessons on Leadership Inspired by 'American Sniper'

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In the movie American Sniper, Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s father says, “There are three types of people: the sheep, the wolf, and the sheepdog.” He goes on to describe the sheep as followers, the wolves as bullies and the sheepdogs as protectors. With 160 confirmed kills in the Iraq War, Chris Kyle saw himself as a sheepdog—the sheep’s protector.

There are the same three types of leaders. Sheep are yielders who try to make employees’ lives easier. Wolves lead by command and control. Sheepdogs protect their companies and employees.

Related: 3 Types of Leadership Strategies That Distinguish Outstanding Entrepreneurs

Sheep in leadership end up being the employee’s whipping boy. By letting the tail wag the dog, they get caught up in employees’ alibis and excuses. They bend over backwards, trying to make employee’s lives easier, rather than supporting team members in rising to the occasion and meeting their potential. 

Wolfish leaders are aggressive and off-putting. In their command and control dictatorships, intimidation rules. Rather than inspiring employees to make good choices, they force them to behave in ways driven by fear.

Related: 7 Telltale Signs of a Weak Leader

The great irony is both the wolf and sheep are driven by fear and insecurity. They believe they aren’t enough so they either take the route of aggression and violence or of passiveness.

The best leaders are sheepdogs who protect both the company’s values and the employees’ goals, aspirations and dreams. They recognize that employees can leave at any moment and treat their people more like volunteers. In volunteer organizations, leaders know they can’t force people to do anything (because they’ll just quit). Instead, they inspire volunteers by reminding them why they are there and appreciating their efforts. For example, they might say, “The kids are going to love what you’re doing. You are making a difference.” The volunteers know they’re contributing and want to come back.

If we had the same mindset in our companies, we would change the culture and improve the results, both in morale and in numbers. Sheepdogs must remind employees of the cause and how their effort makes a difference. True leaders protect the flock. By doing so, they protect the cause (the company’s goals), too.

Related: 5 Keys to Inspiring Leadership, No Matter Your Style

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