In business and on the battlefield, leadership means leading by example and having the courage to do the right thing or speak up.
7 mins read

In business and on the battlefield, leadership means leading by example and having the courage to do the right thing or speak up.

We often think of leadership as a lofty experience similar to leading soldiers up a proverbial hill in battle, but it is really the consistent application of the little things. I have served and met some of the bravest men in the world who have actually climbed hills while bullets whizzed past them, but they will tell you that it does not take such a lofty gesture to be a good leader.

The best way to begin building trust with others is to lead by example. When we lead by example, it creates alignment between our words and our actions and shows others exactly what we expect.

Incoming!

On June 8, 2005, I was operating with our platoon from a small forward operating base (FOB) near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at a place called FOB Shkin. On that particular morning, we were supplied with ammunition by a Chinook helicopter.

As soon as we heard the distant “thump-thump” of the Chinook’s twin rotor blades hitting the mountaintops, I jumped into the front passenger seat of the Humvee, and Luke into the driver’s seat. As we were about to pull away to drive to the landing zone, my soldier, Emmanuel Hernandez, jumped into the back seat. He shouldn’t have been there, so I turned around and was about to yell at him. But for a moment I thought about how much I appreciated that work ethic. He volunteered to lift some heavy boxes and help the team. Amazing! So I didn’t say anything.

As I turned around, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he wasn’t wearing a helmet. I literally opened my mouth and was about to yell at him, but then I realized I wasn’t wearing a helmet either. It’s hard for me to tell someone else something if I’m not doing the right thing myself. So I didn’t say anything.

When the helicopter landed, a group of 10 people had to stand on the side of the plane so they could get the machine gun off the rear ramp and we could start unloading it. I turned my back on the group so I could guide my buddy Luke in the Humvee to drive a little closer to the back of the helicopter. Next thing I knew, Boom! and everything went black. It was as if someone had hit me on the back of the head and I had just slumped to the ground. As I lay there, disoriented and unable to hear, my first thought was that maybe someone was playing a joke—just soldiers on horses. But then I opened my eyes and saw that there were bodies and blood everywhere on the ground.

My hearing slowly returned, and there was an eerie silence that lasted two seconds and two hours at the same time. But the silence was broken by a whistling sound I knew all too well, an incoming rocket. I quickly got up and ducked under the Humvee for cover as rockets began to strike all around me. I quickly realized that it was the rocket that had landed next to us that had knocked me down. When the fire finally stopped, I crawled out from under the Humvee and began to return to the soldiers who were still on the ground, unsure of what I would find there.

As I was doing this, a Marine shouted after me that I had been hit. At that point I felt no pain, but I turned my head and saw that the back of my uniform was torn, with stains of soaked blood.

While my buddy Luke was patching me up, I saw Sergeant Michael Kelly, a supply sergeant from Scituate, Massachusetts, who had recently been assigned to our unit, lying on a raised stretcher and a local Afghan doctor—a really short guy—standing in the red milk, performing CPR.

I quickly circled the clinic to see who else was injured. It wasn’t more than 45 seconds before I returned and saw that they had lowered Michael to the ground and were putting him in a body bag.

I finally found my way to a small room at the back of the clinic and there I found my soldier, Emmanuel Hernande. His head was bandaged and he was unconscious—but I could see his chest rising and falling, so I knew he was breathing.

Medevac helicopters arrived and took us to surgical teams all over the country. They removed a few pieces of shrapnel from my back, but left a few mementos that were too deep to get out. They stitched me up and bandaged me, and then I was sent to a landing zone to board another helicopter to Bagram Airfield for more advanced medical care. While I was waiting there, my commander, Major Howard, came up to me and asked how I was feeling. I told him I would be fine and asked him about Emmanuel. He told me he would be fine, and I was so relieved.

He turned to go, but he had not taken more than four or five steps when he turned around, and with tears running down his cheeks he said, “I’m sorry. I lied. Hernandez is dead.” My knees gave way and I hit the ground as Major Howard embraced me. Emmanuel died because shrapnel from the explosion hit him in the head. He died because I didn’t lead by example. Because I didn’t have the courage to do what was right or to speak up.

To give an example

I broke the trust of my soldiers on June 8, 2005, by not setting a good example. We trusted each other to have each other’s backs, whether that meant trusting the person responsible for not sleeping in the middle of the night on guard duty, or trusting us to speak up if we noticed someone not doing the right thing, like wearing a helmet. For a long time after that incident, I went down a dark path and beat myself up. Of course, I can’t change the past, but I’ve learned that I can take that history and affect the future.

Unless you are actively deployed somewhere in the world, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that you are unlikely to be fired upon by missiles. Of course, not every decision will have life or death consequences, and thank God for that! But the idea that you can inspire and influence those around you through consistently applying good leadership behaviors cannot be overemphasized.

Reprinted with permission from Patrick Nelson, author Leadership on the front line Copyright © 2024 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.