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What does being a “personal leader” mean

030622-N-3953L-106I have always struggled with the concept that being a good leader means being a good follower. I guess I just always associated being a follower with being a lemming. I even know that followership is something that is trained in the military and in some management courses. But the term just makes me bristle. To me being a follower means to not think for yourself. I do not want to follow anyone nor do I want anyone to follow me. But I would like to surround myself with personal leaders.

Author Mark Donald discusses this concept in Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic. He comments that for a SEAL they must operate on the premise that they could be at war at the end of any day (Donald 75). As such, it means that they must be more than ready to deploy at a moments notice, it means that their commanding officer expects his crew to think and act independently to accomplish the mission (Donald 75). Imagine if you had a team of individuals working for you, who didn’t need to be told what to do – they just knew the mission, they were properly trained and they executed.

In my classes, I talk to my students about the concept of personal leadership. If they are the captain of an airplane do they want their first officer to show up late, not have done the preflight done, nor have checked the weather or any other necessary preparations for flight, and constantly have to be told what to do? Of course not. They would expect their first officer to be fully prepared for the flight and taking care of all of the necessary steps – they would know what to do and not have to be told. As such when they themselves are the first officer, before they make it to captain, they should perform the way that they would want others to perform for them. To me this is not followership, this is personal leadership. It’s also the Golden Rule.

This does not mean that there is not a time to shut up and listen. Even though Donald had been through the SEAL training he knew enough when he arrived at his first unit that he was still the FNG (f—-ng new guy) and it’s time to pay attention to what the seasoned vets in the unit had to say (Donald 79). I am of course an avid reader or else I would not be doing this blog series nor living a good portion of my life at Barnes & Noble, however, many of our most important lessons in life cannot be found in textbooks or explained on a chalkboard. They need to be demonstrated to be understood and then practiced to acquire the craft (Donald 89).

Other valuable lessons from Mark Donald:

  • While observing in the emergency room he learned that even the most traumatic situations can be managed with a confident leader at the helm, directing, not doing (Donald 93-94). I find this concept goes along with some of the more progressive management philosophies that talk about leaving the experts to do their job rather than promoting them to higher levels of incompetence. Just because someone is good at doing a thing doesn’t mean they will be good at supervising, managing or leading others and in doing a thing.
  • People who have been close to dying tend to have a zest for both preserving others who are close to losing theirs (Donald 97) and also tend to live their lives a bit more fully. I have come close to death a few times, including as a kid when I choked on a Jolly Rancher candy while jumping up-and-down on a pogo stick (I didn’t say I was bright), in my family’s basement with no one else around. I had to punch myself repeatedly in the stomach to dislodge it, or I would have choked to death. Later, in college I almost killed myself a few times while learning to fly, and also during a car accident. All of these incidents gave me a greater appreciation for life and a desire to help others preserve theirs. I imagine it had something to do with eventually joining the Coast Guard.
  • Even simple procedures become complicated and difficult in unfamiliar environments (Donald 100). Something to think about the next time the procedure you developed worked fine indoors in a controlled environment, before you take it outside into the world and put it under pressure.
  • People can push their bodies far beyond what they believe is possible when there is a clear mission, when they believe in the cause, and when they are well-trained (Donald 106).
  • Change is one of life’s biggest fears and the more drastic change the greater the fear (Donald 110). This is why so many corporate offices cannot change to adjust to a flexible marketplace, resulting in layoffs and eventually the closure of the business. Unfortunately, even those in charge cannot see the end coming and they refuse to change, only to look back later and wonder what happened. It is far better to stay flexible and to realize that the world, the market and people all change – better to learn how to adapt and capitalize on change rather than fear it and fight it.

Mark Donald quoted Bertolt Brecht: Don’t be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life, (Donald 135), when talking about how to live your life. I particularly have always like this quote from the late great Little House actor, Michael Landon: “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”

 

I think this also relates to being a personal leader. Take charge of your life. Do you have a plan? If not, someone else probably has a plan for YOUR life. Better hope its a plan you want to have. Otherwise, step up, be a personal leader. Demonstrate to others and yourself that you can be the person who shows up prepared, understands the mission and doesn’t need to be told what to do. That’s the kind of person a spouse wants, that’s the kind of person an employer wants, that’s the kind of person that if you become, will give you the fulfillment you seek.

Donald, Mark L., and Scott Mactavish. Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic. New York: St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.

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