My Dad was a 23-year Air Force veteran who served in World War II, as well as during the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.
As one who coaches leaders in the workplace, I have been thinking of the brave men and women who inspired the upcoming Memorial Day holiday; and the leadership lessons we can learn from them. I think that today’s business leaders would benefit greatly in emulating the characteristics of the “warrior”—both those in the trenches and leading the charge; in war and peace. What is the warrior’s gift as a leader? It is commitment, attention to detail, passion, service above self, honor, discipline, integrity, perseverance, compassion, the ability to lead and follow, to implement with precision, and the capacity to adapt, be creative, and prevail. These are representative traits possessed by successful military soldiers and solid organizational leaders.
Dad passed away nine years ago this month. I have been blessed to travel with my Mom to many U.S. cities since his death, to attend annual reunions with the folks from Mom and Dad’s days during the 1950s, when they were at the heart of Strategic Air Command missions and initiatives. The numbers in Mom and Dad’s Air Force group are dwindling. I treasure the stories they tell of their own and other soldiers’ experiences. One of those centered on a man I’ll call Joe. Joe was of my folks’ generation. He first enlisted as an 18-year-old during World War II, and then served 20 years after, at one point stationed with my Dad’s stateside-based SAC squadron.
The veterans telling me the story said that when they knew Joe on the base in Kansas, he was an enlisted man; a quiet custodian and office assistant, who helped take care of the quarters and barracks used in top-secret “Cold War” missions. While my Dad and his fellow pilots and navigators busied themselves in preparation for strategic sessions, flights and debriefings, Joe checked off names, got lunches ready and swept the floors. He went relatively unnoticed by the young soldiers until one day in 1958. At that time, a new captain was assigned to the base who had served with Joe in a bloody 1943 battle in the Pacific. The captain brought out military records from that period which told a story around that infantry group, and with reference specifically to Joe stated, “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire … with no regard for personal safety … on his own initiative … single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions… for risk of life above and beyond the call of duty … the President of the United States ….” In short, Joe was a Medal of Honor winner for putting his life on the line and putting service above self—for leading!
I often think of this story shared by my Dad’s military peers. As a collective group, they have shared experiences sprinkled with high risk, tight bonding, cohesive mission and longevity of years to contemplate their journey. Though never once officially in charge during his 20-plus military career, Joe embodied every one of those leadership characteristics I mentioned earlier. I think it is a great life lesson for all of us regarding leadership. Here are five that come to mind based on Joe’s story:
- Anyone can be a champion. Joe did not fit any standard definition of a leader or hero. He was a private when he was honored with the Medal of Honor. Don’t sell people short; give them opportunities to shine. Any one of your team—novice or expert—could be a superstar.
- Pursue excellence; not praise. Joe didn’t act to gain glory. He simply did what he perceived to be his duty and job. He earned highest praise from the U.S., and then quietly went on to push paper and tidy the living space for others. He was a leader by action, not words. Is there really any job beneath a leader? If so, then how can any of us lead by example? Martin Luther King said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Joe modeled that philosophy to the fullest. He did his best, whether admired or unnoticed.
- Refrain from labels and treat all with respect. Don’t define your relationship with people, or your expectations of them, with labels. Joe was part of the team, and deserved respect for that and for doing his job well—regardless of his past victories. People labeled him “assistant” and “janitor”. After finding out about his prior heroism and honors, they admittedly treated him differently. Why? Joe was the same Joe. Look carefully at those in your workplace and organization. Take time to know each of those you work with, whatever their label or status. Who are the heroes in your presence?
- Life may not give you what want. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the military, civilian workplace or life in general. Many of us work very hard, and feel we deserve recognition and kudos for that effort. Perhaps you weren’t given that performance award you expected. Maybe your “sure” promotion didn’t happen. Keep on doing the best job you can do. Don’t let recognition be your measure of reward. There are many rewards in life that come to those who lead and follow with excellence in mind and integrity of heart.
- Humility is okay in a leader. Many of today’s leaders—politicians, athletes and other celebrities to name a few—believe their own hype. Joe was too busy doing his job. Many great leaders are those who have been our teachers, role models, friends, and inspirations. They lead us by sharing what they know and doing what they do. Many leaders today would be well served to “get about it” as Joe did.
The storytellers I listened to at this Air Force reunion several years ago, also told me that the captain shedding light on Joe’s heroism had gone on to become a four-star general. Joe retired from the Air Force after 20 years’ service, took another custodial job, and was still working at it part time when he passed away in 2003. At that time, Joe was also a past organizer and leader for his California community’s Habitat for Humanity and United Way outreach organizations. On the day after Joe’s death, his town had all flags lowered to half-mast in his honor.
Yes, there are lessons in leadership here indeed. Let’s take time to step back and think about the gist of Memorial weekend. It is much more than a holiday to jumpstart summer. It is a time to silently give thanks for those deceased men and women who have served our country. Some fell in battle; some did not. They are all leaders worthy of our gratitude and respect.