Successful Leadership: It’s About Your Followers

Not just for the military...“For exceptional heroism and selfless devotion to his fellow soldiers.  While conducting jungle operations near Fort Sherman, Panama, Corporal Okampo displayed great personal courage in the successful rescue of a fellow soldier from a near drowning accident.  As one soldier struggled to rescue another  from the waters of the Rio Congo river, both were at the point of exhaustion.  Corporal Okampo entered the water with utter disregard for his personal welfare and singlehandedly assisted both men to safety.  Corporal Okampo’s actions reflect credit upon him, this command and the United States Army.”

Sergeant Kite stood at attention, along with the entire Scout Platoon, as the Battalion Commander read the citation and pinned a medal to the chest of the young soldier.  It seemed the unit had a hero in its midst.

Many of those who have served have witness just such a ceremony, seen the mixture of pride and embarrassment on the face of the proclaimed hero, who more often than not feels undeserving of the accolades.  After all, he’ll insist afterwards, he was no hero.  He was merely doing his job.

For Corporal Okampo, this is exactly how he felt.  Yes, he had jumped into the waters without hesitation when he saw Lance Corporal Jimenez’s head disappear, the weight of his rucksack and assault rifle dragging him downward into the murky, swirling water.  In fact, he’d leapt at the same time as had Sergeant Kite, who stood on the opposite bank, closer to Jimenez by a good 25 meters or so.  And yes, by the time Okampo reached the spot where Jimenez had disappeared beneath the surface, so too was Sergeant Kite in peril of being pulled under by the panicked clutch of the drowning Marine.  And yes, Okampo had managed to wrestle his Sergeant free from Jimenez’s grip and subsequently manhandle both scouts to the shoreline, where all three lay gasping and sputtering on the muddy bank.

In truth, Okampo hadn’t thought about the incident but a few times since that day.  After all, once they caught their breath, the three had continued their patrol, intent on completing the mission successfully.  Another day, another dime, he’d quickly dismissed the situation at the river.  So, five months later, as he stood in front of the entire 3rd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, it was with mixed emotions.  He’d never considered his actions heroic.  But he, indeed, was proud….but the target of that pride might surprise some.

You see, it wasn’t his actions for which he was proud.  No, to this day, Okampo maintains that he did exactly what anyone in his situation would have done.  It wasn’t overly courageous.  It was, in his mind, merely the right thing to do.

As the awards formation broke up that afternoon, Sergeant Kite approached Corporal Okampo to congratulate him.  As the two shook hands, Okampo canted his head to the side slightly and stuttered, “Why am I the only one getting this award, Sarge?”

Sergeant Kite smiled and replied, “I already got my award.”

Okampo looked confused.  Why hadn’t anyone known about his section leader’s award?

Again, Sergeant Kite smiled, patted his soldier on the shoulder.  “My award is seeing you recognized, Corporal.  As your leader, that’s all I need,” he stated.

Okampo beamed, but at that moment, he couldn’t have cared less about the medal dangling from his uniform.  He’d never been more proud of his sergeant.

servant-leaderHe’d later be told that it had been Kite who’d nominated Okampo for the Army’s highest peacetime award, taking absolutely none of the credit for himself, despite having just as courageously entered the water with exactly the same intent as Okampo.  In fact, the Sergeant’s name never even appeared on any description of the event.  He had insisted that all the credit for the entire rescue belong to his Corporal.

Servant leadership is all about raising up your followers, taking a behind-the-scenes role that not only removes barriers for your people, but that selflessly promotes their successes before those of your own.  In that moment, standing on that parade field, Okampo realized the essence of servant leadership there before him.  In that moment, he understood…..successful leadership.

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