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Leadership lessons from Shan Yu

I sometimes notice leadership lessons hiding in odd places. They are around if you look for them. You can find leadership lessons from such unexpected places as Superman II, Pulp Fiction, and other odd sources. Here's another:

Are you familiar with the leadership lessons of Shan Yu? No, not that Shan Yu from Sci Fi's Firefly. I mean Shan Yu from Disney's Mulan.

Sure, Shan Yu may be the bad guy in that movie, but who says that movie villains can't also be good leaders? And it turns out that Shan Yu is pretty good at developing his team through coaching.

There's a key scene in the movie where Shan Yu decides to return a doll to a little girl in a nearby village. Shan Yu is present as a leader, and takes advantage of a coaching opportunity:


(Shan Yu scans the landscape from the top of a tall tree. His hawk flies overhead and drops a small doll. Shan Yu investigates the doll, jumps down from the tree, and throws the doll to his Hun leaders.)

Shan Yu: What do you see?

Hun #1: Black pine ... from the high mountains!

Hun #2: White horse hair ... Imperial stallions.

Hun #3: Sulphur ... from cannons.

Shan Yu: This doll came from a village in the Tung Show Pass, where the Imperial Army is waiting.

Hun Archer: We can avoid them easily.

Shan Yu: No. The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.

Note how Shan Yu uses this opportune moment to coach his staff. Before offering his own opinion, he asks his team leads for what they can learn by examining the doll. In turn, they each respond with an answer that offers new insight: the doll comes from a village high in the mountains, and the Imperial cannon brigade is there too.

The "coaching button" is something that sticks with your listener. Like the button on a shirt or coat, a "coaching button" doesn't do the whole job, but over time as you use more "coaching buttons" the whole picture comes together. They key is to make those "buttons" easily understood and memorable, able to stand on their own, but part of a larger story.

Shan Yu's comments are brief, memorable, but not overpowering. He is able to offer his own opinion (and decision to return the doll) without discounting the team leads. From what we see in the movie, it seems that Shan Yu has taken advantage of other coaching moments to help his future leaders develop.

"Coaching buttons" are wonderful conversational gifts. Take any available opportunity to do brief coaching conversation with your team. For example, you might find yourself early for a meeting, only one staff member is there, giving a short time for a "coaching button". Never waste an opportunity for coaching, however brief. The "coaching button" might only cover one question without an opportunity for follow-up questions to delve deeper - but if you can find frequent opportunities for several "buttons", I find it can be helpful.

Just like Shan Yu.