Years ago, as I approached my commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, a mentor was describing Army life to me and said something memorable about example. He pointed out,
“You will pass probably a hundred Soldiers throughout each day…and you’re gonna have to salute each one of them…and it will start to feel routine and unimportant, almost an annoyance. But don’t get sloppy and don’t take it for granted. You won’t remember each one of those Soldiers, but they will remember you. You may be the only officer a Soldier sees that day…the only salute he sees in return. So execute each interaction as if it were the most important of the day.”
Always on Parade
There is clearly the “professional bearing and appearance” side of my mentor’s lesson, the idea that a leader, whether she likes it or not, is on a perpetual stage. Every moment is an opportunity to represent the organization’s values and telegraph desirable performance standards. Appearance matters. Doing correct push-ups matters. Training to standard matters. And suffering hardship with the team matters.
“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life.
Never spare yourself and let your troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation.”
~ German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
“You are always on parade.”
~ General George S. Patton, Jr.
Another aspect is that leaders influence followers in ways that are less-direct and more personal. Just as you have chosen what talents you like about your leaders, your followers get to choose what traits they will model after you. Each person views your leadership from a different perspective and a different set of needs. Some are looking for perseverance during busy times. Others are disgruntled and need the passion reignited. Some need a good lesson in humility. Still others will bend their parenting behavior to model your character traits.
You don’t get to decide which lessons people take from your example or when they decide to learn from your behavior. You’re always “on” and you will likely never discover the true impact of your leadership. This is both the burden and the blessing of leadership…make it count.
“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”
~ General Colin Powell