He stood alone, visibly shaken, chain smoking from a pack of borrowed cigarettes. We’d just taken our first hostile fire of the war, some inaccurate mortar rounds that peppered the rocky soil just outside the hastily-strewn concertina wire that formed our defensive perimeter. But that fire, combined with early reports of division casualties, was enough to push him to the edge. I approached him and stood by his side, facing the opposite direction as I watched the soldiers maneuver carefully to keep their distance from the commander.
“You doin’ alright?” I asked quietly.
“I’m fine,” he answered, his hands shaking noticeably as he took a hard pull on the cigarette.
“I’ve never seen you smoke,” I replied.
“I’m out of Copenhagen.”
“You know,” I said, easing into the meat of the conversation, “this isn’t a good look for you.” I nodded toward the nearby troops. “They’re watching you. They see that something’s not right. You’re upset, and it’s upsetting them.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” He spat. “I can’t just turn it off.”
“Sir,” I began, “this is ‘go time.’ They need to see that command presence. They need to see confidence and control. ”
He took another long pull from the cigarette in his hand, threw it to the ground, and crushed it under the toe of his boot. He stuck a forefinger into the pack and fished out a fresh cigarette and lit it. He looked down at his feet for a moment, then took a breath and turned his head in my direction. “Are you through?” He asked.
I was. I left him there, standing alone, cigarette in trembling hand.
Author, ethnographer, and leadership expert Simon Sinek published a book a few years ago titled “Leaders Eat Last.” On the surface, the main point seemed obvious, something we’ve all heard and most of us emulate. In reality, there is far more to leading by example than waiting for everyone else to eat before you fill your plate. (And, in truth, there is a lot more to the book than the title suggests.)
From the first day we put on the uniform, we hear those three words: Lead by example. They are, without a doubt, the three most important words in vast lexicon of leadership. Those three words represent and reflect our values, professional ethic, and warrior ethos. We tend weave the idea behind them into trite slogans like ‘Do the right thing’ and ‘Always choose the hard right over the easy wrong.’ But if you truly lead by example, you don’t need any other words. Just those three simple words.
For me, lead by example conveys some very basic concepts that frame my philosophy as a leader. They reflect years of mentoring and development, from my time as a platoon leader to years serving alongside some of our militaries most senior leaders. They capture the essence of our profession: who we are and who we endeavor to become.
Leaders eat last.
This is about much more than pushing everyone else to the front of the chow line. It’s about selflessness and sacrifice. In everything you do, put your subordinates first. Care for them as you would your own family. Take the risks for them so they don’t have to. Be the leader they choose to follow.
Words and deeds.
Don’t mince words. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Your words and actions must always be in concert — if you say it, do it.
Get a life.
There is more to work than… well, work. Sports, hobbies, family. Just get a life and make time for it. Doing so speaks louder than words, especially to those watching.
Keep calm and lead on.
Maintaining your cool when the pressure’s on sets a lasting example. The old advertising slogan “Never let ‘em see you sweat” was simple, direct, and spot on. Keep your cool, don’t raise your voice unless you absolutely have to, and steer the ship through the storm.
Take a knee and drink water.
All work and no play will break an organization, starting with you. Make sure you keep your people rested and refreshed, and do so for yourself, too. That includes setting reasonable duty hours, so you don’t have people working late on a regular basis. There are times when you’ll need all hands on deck; make sure that you don’t have all hands on deck all the time or they won’t be ready when you need them most.
Exercise, keep yourself in good condition. That doesn’t mean you have to be the fastest runner or the monster gym rat, just that you take care of yourself physically and maintain a standard that others can emulate. It carries the added benefit of being good for you.
Don’t be “that guy” who seems to always be taking his ball and going home. If you’re going to do something, give it your best effort and stay with it until the very end. You might not always come out ahead, but the effort and the attitude set a strong example for others.
Work smarter, not harder.
We have a tendency to find a lot of solutions without fully understanding the problem we’re trying to solve. Take the time to think through a problem before starting work. Time and people are your most valuable resources. Use them wisely.
Risk is part of the job.
There are few professions as dangerous as ours, where decisions carry the weight of life-and-death consequences. This is no place to be risk averse. Always remember: “Risk is a potent catalyst that fuels opportunity.” You don’t win by not taking chances.
Trust is a two-way street.
Give trust, earn trust. If you trust someone enough to assign them a task, trust them with the authority to make decisions and empower them to assume reasonable risks. In turn, they will reward you with their trust.
When in charge, take charge.
You’re the leader. Lead. Patton said it best: “Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.” It doesn’t get much more basic than that.
A wise leader once counseled me to “always remember that your troops are watching.” They see everything you do, hear everything you say, read everything you write (or post), and feel the impact of everything you decide. By virtue of your position, you are their leader. Lead them.