In one of the most storied battles of ancient history, some 300 Spartans fought to the death to hold a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece for 3 days against over 10,000 Persian attackers in 480 B.C. Their King, Leonidas, perished with them, and the amazing thing about this display of courage is that the Spartans knew they had been betrayed by another Greek and virtually surrounded by the enemy — yet they refused to yield. Ultimately, their courage and tenacity inspired the entire federation of Greek city-states to rise up and defeat the invading Persians — a victory that likely changed the course of history. Today there is a memorial on the site which simply says: “Go tell the Spartans, ye stranger passing by, that here, obedient to your laws, we lie.”
Level Five leaders embrace the West Point values of “Duty, Honor, and Country” that Leonidas and his Spartans displayed in the crucible of Thermopalye centuries ago. It is the essence of servant leadership. In one our fundamental Big Six Leadership Principles® , we state that Level Five leaders “Do the Right Thing When No One Is Looking.” Servant leaders do that every day, 24/7.
If you read the biographies of great leaders, you’ll see the word serve throughout the narratives. General Colin Powell, for example, served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989-1993. The word connotes a very important distinction between just performing a job, versus one where you serve others in your position. One of the most important aspects of serving others is to lead by example…to do the right thing. You must commit to selfless service to become a Level Five leader.
The fundamental truth is you can’t have it both ways; i.e., try to be a role model during the duty day, then turn into another person at night or on the weekends. We’ve all seen them — the chameleon-like leaders who think they are getting away with something, and no one will know. We’ve seen them in politics, government, religion, business, sports, entertainment, and the list goes on. In the end, they destroy an organization. There is no servant leadership in these examples, only selfish conduct. They fail those they were supposed to lead.
A good friend and colleague of ours, Colonel (retired) Bill Smullen, USA, wrote in his recent book Ways and Means for Managing Up, a powerful message on the responsibility of leaders to those they serve:
“As a professional, regardless of rank or position, you must be accountable for all you do or fail to do to uphold the reputation and credibility of the organization. That may come naturally to those who were raised to uphold the highest of ethical and moral standards. Others may have to learn it.”
It’s our responsibility as leaders to serve those we lead by doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. And in doing so, we teach others what’s right. We set the example and lead from the front. We cannot assume that everyone on our team will just “get it” by virtue of their background and education. Far from it. More often than not, we are shaped by those we follow, and incorporate their leadership example into the leaders we become. Our legacy will be in those we lead who do the right things, all the time.
Next time you look in the mirror, start a new habit of asking yourself: “Do I respect and admire the person I’m looking at?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you’re doing OK — but never take that answer for granted. Go back and ask that person in the mirror the same question every time. You can not fool the person in the mirror. Be honest; only you and God are having this conversation.
It’s our duty to those we serve to lead by example. Doing the right thing when nobody’s looking is the practical means of servant leadership. It is all about moral courage. Challenge yourself to become that kind of leader. Remember the Spartans; good luck!