Nestled amidst the swampy forests of Fort Benning, Georgia, the image of Iron Mike is a common site. No, not Mike Tyson. Rather, Iron Mike, the U.S. Army’s Infantry symbol and mascot. An advancing soldier, rifle clutched in one hand and his other arm raised above his head, beckoning others forward. The infantry motto….Follow Me!
It’s this image that inspired a nineteen year old Army Private in the early 90s, not only for its romantic visage of honor and courage, but for the message it held up as the standard for leadership.
Half a decade later, it was the Navy’s touted values of Honor, Courage, Commitment that helped round out my vision of what leadership means. It’s a combination of all these that defines the highest quality of leadership to me.
Follow Me – More than simply being provided the authority to demand performance of others, it’s the essence of servant leadership (as envisioned by Robert Greenleaf). It’s about setting the positive example for others to follow. It’s about leading from the front…the first on the battlefield and the last off attitude. It’s about demonstrating respect, vision, and a message that you wouldn’t ask others to do what you yourself are unwilling to do. It’s about risk-taking and possible sacrifice to be shared among all.
Honor – Leadership means understanding the solemn responsibility you have been given and ensuring you uphold the best traditions of the role. It doesn’t mean you’re better than others, but simply that you have been entrusted to do the right thing in potentially difficult situations.
Courage – Taking risks is, well…..risky. Sometimes you succeed. Othertimes you fail. Good leaders understand the need to sometimes press forward into the unknown, trusting in the skills and motivations of those around you (of your fellow leaders and your followers). It means allowing your subordinates to also take risks, with the faith that they also will do what is best for the organization. And it’s having the internal fortitude to call out those who seek to harm the group (intentionally or accidentally).
Commitment – Without commitment, the willingness to stick with it until the end, it’s tough to attract others to your cause. But it goes beyond simply being committed to the mission at hand. It’s also about committing to the wellbeing of your followers. Supporting their needs (personal and professional). Developing their pride, passion, and purpose. Understanding that your purpose may not always speak to theirs, which may necessitate a “changing of the guard.” It’s a steadfast adherence to your own principles, values, and personal credo.
I look back on my decade in uniform fondly and with deep gratitude for what it taught me about leadership. Many of the best leaders I’ve ever served under were from those years. And some of the worst examples of leadership also came from my military years. But good or bad, they reinforced these four ideals as critical for leading others. They are ideals I’ve sought to instill in my own leadership opportunities. Sometimes I’ve succeeded. Other times I failed. Then again….that’s simply my military heritage, a heritage of leadership.