Battle Cry Blunder: What I Learned

Every year we pick a battle cry as a team. Meant as a rallying call for the year, it unites us around our greatest area of potential growth. The battle cry is really a distilled and weaponized idea, a tool forged from our company goals to sharpen our decision making in the coming year. It’s the katana we pull out during everyday challenges to cut through the ambiguity of complex scenarios. This year was no exception. We had some great ideas, hashed them out as a team, and chose a battle cry by the end of January.

It failed completely. Here is why.

The Background

On a cold, gray day in early January, my business partner, Daniel, and I hopped in his little black Mazda 3 and sped up Highway 17. We were headed to Charleston for a few days to focus on outlining our priorities and strategy for the year. This year was going to be a big year. We had big challenges, but we were poised for growth, ready to seize the moment and make it happen.

One of our primary objectives was to make sure we understood our goals and through that, uncover our new battle cry. After some intense discussion, research, and introspection, we left Charleston geared up and ready to set the pace for 2016. We had some great options for the battle cry and were excited to take the discussion to the team. At our next team-wide meeting we got around the whiteboard for a few hours, sharpening our ideas as suggestions flew around. Soon we’d filled the empty space with many short and memorable taglines. I decided we’d narrow that list down to the top three options, and then put it to a vote. Majority would win.

The Breakdown

This is where the process broke down. In my mind there was a clear winner; I was confident the team would rally around one particular tagline. But that didn’t happen. The winning selection was good—it was catchy, in line with our culture, and just right enough to get selected. But it was also very wrong, that elusory difference between good and great.

Every year I write a battle cry blog post, but this year I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I kept procrastinating, pushing it down on my To Do list. Since its selection, I’d heard the battle cry used only a handful of times, sometimes almost jokingly and never with real meaning behind it. Ultimately, the battle cry was a complete flop. My team didn’t believe in it.  More importantly, I didn’t believe in it.  How could I lead ask my team to commit to it if I didn’t?

Finally I confided in one of our team members about my dilemma. His simple response gave me some quick wisdom: “Why not change it?” Eureka! He was right! I believe our battle cry has the power to direct and change our team over time, and that belief made this way too important to let go. If I as a leader couldn’t buy into what we’d chosen, then I had a responsibility to change it.

So that’s exactly what I did. First I shared my perspective with Daniel and he agreed that we should make the change. Then I emailed our team admitting my mistake, announcing the new battle cry, and explaining both why I felt the change was needed and how the new battle cry speaks more directly to our 2016 goals and direction. Finally, I set aside some time during our weekly team meeting to give everyone a chance to give their feedback on my decision.

I always want to learn from my mistakes and grow as a leader, so I invested some time in unpacking the reasons why we got into this pickle in the first place. I want to share these with you; hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

The Lessons

We need a leadership team.
Our team is growing and we’re transitioning from thinking like a small team to thinking like a big team. With a smaller group, we could all discuss battle cry possibilities together without too many opposing ideas. But now we’re a team of 20 invested, creative, vocal people, so that’s no longer the case.
We need to establish a leadership team capable of handling big challenges like the battle cry, without defending individual ideas at the expense of the wider goal. The leadership team must still be representative of the whole team, and we still need to get initial input from everyone. But distilling the options down and making final decisions should be the responsibility of a much smaller group.

Decision making creates momentum.
I have always wanted to be a democratic leader who listens to insight from my team and learns from their perspectives. I want everyone to have a voice. However, our team requires a leader who can and will quickly make decisions. Input is critical, but overcomplicating the process with excessive discussion leads to lost momentum and counterproductive compromise. Too much introspection can be deadly, but making decisions and executing on them creates valuable momentum.

I need to be more confident in my vision.
Like many leaders, I struggle with insecurity about making the right moves. It’s easy to get bogged down in wrestling with the big questions: Am I leading our team in the right direction? Am I anticipating potential challenges and setting us up for success? Am I focused on the right things? That’s especially true with issues as weighty as the battle cry, which is meant to drive a big impact for the entire year ahead.

A lot of leadership is about feeling. Does this feel right? Does it serve our needs? Does it speak to where we want to go? Ask simple questions, get simple answers and then go with a decision. I have learned that my vision is usually pretty good and I need to just go with it. I am the leader. No one can see what I see, knows what I know, or has my unique experiences. More importantly, no one else can determine my goals for the company.  As a Christian, I always ask God for direction and clarity around big picture vision and the direction for our company. Ultimately I need to be confident that God is leading me in the direction He wants me to go.

I can’t empower the individual at the expense of diluting my vision.
Effective, healthy leadership is all about trust. At Gauge we place significant value on relationships. Daniel and I take the time to get to know each team member, keep our doors open (that’s metaphorical; our desks sit alongside everyone else’s), and build mutual trust. We also put a strong emphasis on personal initiative and empowerment. I’ve learned through this mistake that the best way to empower my team is to give them clear goals and priorities to align around. If we have that mutual trust, they can rely on my judgment and perspective as I set those goals and priorities, and I can rely on them to use those goals to stay aligned with our greater vision as they run with their ideas and initiatives.  

In the end, it’s not important that each individual thinks the battle cry I choose is the best option. The important thing is that they trust me to invest enough time, thought, and consideration of alternate viewpoints to make the right call, and then clearly communicate the reasoning behind my decision. If the trust is in place, we can build an atmosphere that allows people to “disagree and commit.” And if my team doesn’t trust me, then I have much bigger problems than a mischosen battle cry.

If something doesn’t feel right, go at it head on.
When the final battle cry votes came in, my heart sank. My gut told me the chosen option wasn’t right, but I didn’t address that discomfort. I was apprehensive about overwriting a team decision, not sure what the next step was, and had a lot on my to do list. So I simply moved on. I didn’t address my uneasiness and I didn’t explore the issue more deeply.
I’ve learned that as a leader, if something doesn’t feel right, I have to invest the time to explore it. I have to ask why, again and again. I have to work on it until I have a better solution that I’m comfortable with. After all, if I don’t believe it, my team will sense that and they won’t follow me. I need to honor the trust they’ve placed in me by using my instincts and making the tough decisions.

I am happy to say that so far, the response to the new battle cry has been great. I have an excellent team and I can’t wait to see how they unite around this throughout the rest of the year. Through our feedback session, we’re even exploring a new, more fitting way to use the rejected battle cry.
Ultimately, as a leader, I am always growing and learning from my mistakes. What leadership mistakes have you learned from the most?

If you would like to learn what our battle cry for this year ended up being, then this post is for you.

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