Today was one of those “hard writing” days. As I was searching for inspiration, however, I stumbled across some old notes I had taken during a leadership course on motivation and the impact of leaders. While the thoughts were ones I had read, listened to, and noted several times, a couple of things stood out to me today that I hadn’t really examined before and it got me started thinking and led to this post. The central theme of the keynote session was that good leaders lead. I know that sounds trite, but I think too often we try to make leadership and its characteristics much more difficult than they need to be.
When you look at successful leaders you can identify a lot of commonalities between them, such as responses to failures, perseverance, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their team, etc. The one characteristic that all of them shared, however, is that they led their people. They didn’t stand in the back and exhort, they didn’t shout and manipulate from the sidelines, they led. Many, many times they were considered obstinate, were accused of charging down the wrong path, were criticized for bucking the status quo, but they moved forward anyway and gave people the confidence to follow them by showing that they were willing to be at the front.
There are many examples of this, but one of my favorites is General George Patton. While most know of him from the film and his somewhat colorful escapades in World War II, Patton’s leadership was evidenced much, much earlier. Patton started his military career after graduating from West Point as a cavalry officer. His skill in fencing and running led him to a 5th place finish in the 1912 Olympic games as a pentathlete. His command of swordplay led the Army to have him redesign the cavalry saber, which became known as the Patton Sword. As he came up on his first major assignment outside of the DC area, he ran into his first challenge. He discovered he was being transferred to the Philippines where he was concerned that his career would stagnate, so he took leave and convinced the Army to transfer him to Texas, where tensions between Mexico and the US were escalating. Shortly after his arrival, the US launched the Pancho Villa expedition to stop Pancho Villa’s raids into New Mexico and Arizona. The commander, John Pershing was heading the expedition, but did not select Patton’s unit for participation, at which point, Patton appealed to Pershing and was subsequently assigned as Pershing’s personal aide. During the expedition, Patton sought and was selected to lead what would become the first motorized skirmish in US history.
When Pershing became the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, Patton accompanied him as his aide and was introduced to the concept of the tank and mechanized warfare. As this type of warfare was in its infancy, Patton seized the opportunity and was put in charge of developing the first tank training school. Post World War I, Patton was put in charge of a not only developing the new mechanized warfare doctrine and training programs, he regularly participated at the head of war games designed to test his ideas and battle concepts. To improve his own understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his new doctrine, he taught himself to pilot an airplane and regularly flew over his units’ maneuvers in order to observe and identify areas for improvement. Ultimately, he demonstrated the effectiveness of his doctrine in North Africa and Europe during World War II.
The thing that stands out in Patton’s life is that he actively looked for and embraced the opportunity to lead. He wanted to be in front and he wanted to be in charge. He made his share of mistakes, but he never asked any of the men under his command to do anything he wasn’t willing to do first, and in many instances actually went to the front and did what he was ordering them to do to serve as an example. From the beginning of his career to the end of his life, he led from the front because his belief was that leaders lead. I’ll wrap this up with one of my favorite quotes from him.
“A man must know his destiny. if he does not recognize it, then he is lost. By this I mean, once, twice, or at the very most, three times, fate will reach out and tap a man on the shoulder. If he has the imagination, he will turn around and fate will point out to him what fork in the road he should take, if he has the guts, he will take it.”