Real Leaders Go First

Years ago, when I was still in college, I was a summer intern for a non-profit organization. I had competed against scores of candidates and won a spot on a prestigious sales team. It paid $65.00 a week. I was thrilled at the opportunity and eager to get started.

A soldier Lacing Up His Boots - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #8614676

Photo courtesy of ©

The job was in another city, so the first day was spent in traveling and getting settled. The second day was our first official day on the job. It began with a full-day training session.

We were going to be cold-calling prospective customers, so we began with a thorough exploration of the product. (I am intentionally being vague, so as not to implicate a national brand that is virtually a house-hold word.)

Next, we went through a sample presentation. We learned the main points of the message and even discussed specific phrases to use and to avoid. We then considered every possible objection. The instructor taught us how to respond and even drilled us, so it became second nature. As the day wore on, our confidence increased.

The next day was to be the big day. The instructor was sending us out to engage with real-live prospects. We were a little nervous but excited to actually be doing what we had been hired to do. As we were leaving the training site, I innocently said to the instructor, “I can’t wait to get started. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

The instructor replied, “Ah … I won’t be there tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” I said, puzzled by his statement.

“Well, I won’t be with you tomorrow,” he admitted. “I have never actually been in the field.”

“Wait a second,” I stammered. “You have never actually made a presentation like the one you taught us today?”

“Ah … no, I haven’t” he said, staring at the ground.

My heart sank. I thought, You have to be kidding. You have just spent an entire day teaching us something that you have never actually done yourself? This is all theory? I was blown away—and disillusioned. I felt abandoned.

Compare my sales trainer’s approach to Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s speech to his troops before they departed for Vietnam. This was famously depicted by Mel Gibson in the 2002 movie, We Were Soldiers.

We are going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear, before you and before Almighty God: that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I’ll be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together, so help me God.”

Real leaders go first. They never ask others to do what they have not done or are unwilling to do themselves. They lead by example. Like the Apostle Paul, they are willing to say, “Follow me, as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Like Lt. Col. Moore, they are the first on the field and the last off.

Question: What about you? Are you leading by example. Where do you need to step up and go first?
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  • Benjamin Lichtenwalner

    As discussed in the comments of your other post Where to Find Peace in Turbulent Times, I greatly appreciate the example set by Lt. Col. Hal Moore.

    What I think is worth noting here though, is that in our roles, it may not take such a dramatic example. In fact, it is often the very small matters in which we stumble as leaders and fail to set the example. I think of meeting corporate policies on tasks such as expense report submission timelines or reportinr your hours. Leaders often expect their reports to follow guidelines but believe these rules somehow do not apply to them.

    I was once saw a manager complete a long list of (tedious) online, mandatory training the day after being announced to his team. He was able to quickly explain how we spent the many hours sitting through the training already – so nobody had an excuse for missing the due date. It’s often the small examples that matter most.

  • W. Mark Thompson

    Love that quote from the Mel Gibson movie. Believe this is so true in the home as well. Our children watch us, observe us, and copy what we do. Leaders can use this to lead the home for a great purpose. If our kids see us live with no purpose, we’re doing a great disservice to them and their lives. If we live with a purpose (even in Christ), they’re likely to follow in those footsteps.

    I bet your confidence sank when you learned your instructor/trainer/mentor never actually tried what he’d taught. GULP!

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