Why leadership is like a box of chocolates

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, actor Tom Hanks as the movie's main character states, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get." If you've ever received a box of chocolates, you'll recall that you typically have a variety of chocolates of different flavors, sizes and shapes ­-- each a mystery until you indulge. As you selected your first piece and took a bite, you determined whether the chocolate was worth another bite or whether you'd like to make another selection. Some of the chocolate is good and worth eating again, others not so much. Each piece of chocolate you select to eat or not to eat is a personal choice. Like a box of chocolates, life is full of choices -- some better than others.

So why is leadership like a box of chocolates? In leadership, we'll all be faced with a "box of choices" and their associated decisions. The choices leaders face and the decisions they make, like chocolate, come in all shapes and sizes -- expected and unexpected, major and minor, time critical and time available -- you never know what you are going to get.

Whether we lead a section, flight, squadron, group or wing, we may think that the daily choices we have and decisions we make as we lead our Airmen are a challenge. However, leading ourselves is the bigger challenge. In his book, Leadership Gold, John C. Maxwell has a chapter entitled, "The Toughest Person to Lead is Always Yourself." The essence of this chapter is our leadership of others is only as good as the leadership of ourselves. Former IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson articulates this point best, "Nothing so conclusively proves a man's ability to lead others, as what he does from day to day to lead himself." In short, our leadership is only as good as the standards to which we hold ourselves when faced with our daily "box of choices."

Much like a box a chocolates, leadership can be an adventure full of choices. Our actions and decisions in the most crucial of choices are framed by the standards to which we hold ourselves in the easiest of choices. I've collected leadership quotations throughout my Air Force career and one of my favorites is from President Ronald Reagan:

The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the 'little' choices of years past -- by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation...whispering the lie that 'it really doesn't matter'. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness; habits of self-sacrifice or self-indulgence; habits of duty and honor and integrity -- or dishonor and shame.

We all have a choice in how we lead. The standards we maintain and the choices we make as we lead ourselves have a direct impact on our leadership of others and the overall leadership experience. As you open your daily "box of choices" and make decisions as a leader, maintain high personal standards regardless the complexity of the choice and associated decision. Your choices define your character. Considering all discussed thus far, I came across an appropriate quote recently, "the stronger the character, the sweeter the leadership experience."

Leadership really is like a box of chocolates -- choose wisely.