Leadership: the action of leading a group of people or an organization. There are different styles of leadership and they vary greatly. Some work from the ground up and the others from the top down. Meaning that the term “leadership” is in the eyes of the beholder. It is one of the most abused and misunderstood labels in the business world.
Are you a good leader because you can make someone do something? Are you a good leader because your group or team performs in an exemplary manner and your superiors think it was your leadership style that made it all happen? Can you lead your horses to water? Can your horses lead you to water?
I’ve seen some pretty fine people be awarded for their skills and example setting and I’ve also seen some low life arm twisters and self centered extortionists get the same recognition. It degraded the honor.
I have also been fortunate enough to have people report to me that I would follow anywhere.
When I was in Vietnam in ’68, just before the TET Offensive, I had about three months left in country. We were a grizzled, hardened bunch by then. When we were back at base camp we cut the sleeves off of our jungle fatigues, didn’t lace up our boots and hardly ever put a razor to our face.
About that time, we were awarded a brand spanking new 2nd Lieutenant fresh from stateside. He was lily white, wore brand new freshly starched fatigues and even spit shined his jungle boots. OMG! Oh, he was a site to behold, probably 25 and fresh out of OCS.
There were three of us passing by him that morning, me and a couple of characters from New Jersey. We all said “Good morning sir” and kept walking. He yelled for us to stop right there and approached us. He said, “you men forget how to salute an officer?” By then we had. This was a whole other planet compared to where he came from. Murphy said, “you’re kidding, right?”
Lt. Harris lost it and told all three of us to drop and give him twenty five. Twenty five push ups like in basic training. We all start moaning “c’mon man, you can’t be serious.” He was. Now at the time, we were under the influence of a vast amount of Cambodian weed and we get down in the push up position. This quickly becomes hysterical. I did maybe three before I collapsed in the dirt laughing uncontrollably.
Now we are drawing a crowd. The rest of the company comes out of their tents to see what all the commotion is about. Meanwhile, our new “second louie” is threatening a court martial and a firing squad. Finally, he had to dismiss us because he was embarrassing himself but he was our sworn enemy from that moment on. He made us salute him every time we saw him. The other officers just shook their heads.
We headed up a large convoy with supplies for our sister battalion up north. We had Korean troops along to help with security and everyone was loaded for bear. We were told to expect trouble. It was a long haul and we had to stop quite a few times to check gear and coordinates.
Lt. Harris yelled out for me to run up to his jeep for something and when I arrived I reflexively snapped him a salute. He freaked. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to salute an officer in the field?” He was right, it tells enemy snipers who the boss is. That ain’t good. Soon the word spread that we had found a way to get to him. And we did. Poor bastard.
It was not an uneventful trip. We endured our share of terror but we made it back safely. That night our buddy stopped by our hooch as we were getting high, drinking and listening to “Give me a ticket for an airplane…” He sat down and joined us. We had a blast. He was a little stiff at first but we grew to love him. (He was a dork, though) The mutual respect we grew to have made him worthy of the leadership mantle we bestowed on him.
We spent the rest of the time in country doing all we could to make him look good and garner respect from his fellow officers. He was our leader. Don’t fuck with him.
Fast forward forty five years and I’m standing in my boss’s office and he’s asking me why I devoted some of my time and energy to a video project the R&D group wanted produced for their annual celebration. Why would you do something for those guys, they don’t have any direct impact on what we’re doing?
I said, “they will, and I will be looking for their help.” He told me at my level in the company, I could just tell them to do it.” I said, “sure, but I want them to want to do it.” He looked at me with a puzzled look and said “whatever,” and I left.
Real leadership is hard to define but I can only tell you from my experience: you’ll know it when you see it.