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 ©iStockphoto.com/carlofranco, Image #8614676

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/carlofranco

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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  • wanderer

    Great post, Thanks! (Spelling check needed ):p

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I really should use a proof-reader. Thanks for the heads up. I think I fixed it.

  • http://michaelnozbe.com MichaelNozbe

    Great post Mike, as always!

    I find it very true if you're running a small company – whenever there is a new job or activity that needs to be done – I'm doing it first – I'm the owner of the company so I should try it first and see how this works for us, what exactly needs to be done, what needs to be improved, how, etc.

    After I'm done doing the trial, I hand it over to my team with guidelines and suggestions how and what to do. This way I can answer their questions (unlike your training guy in the blog post) and help them be more effective in their work.

    There is another benefit to that – my employees see that I've done that, know that I'm the do-er not the tell-er and that they can trust me I'm sending them on the mission where they will not be abandoned. Just as you said.
    My recent post 7 ways the new Apple iPad will increase your productivity

    • http://modernservantleader.com/ Benjamin Lichtenwalner

      Michael, you make a good point. I’ve done a good deal of work in the startup and venture captial field. During my work in these areas, I learned that many entrepreneurs and small business owners are so focused on getting the jobs done, they often overlook their perception. Keep up the great work.

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  • http://www.JanetOber.com Janet Oberholtzer

    One morning, I once sat through 3 hours of teaching about marriage/child raising. After lunch the speaker/teacher informed us that she was never married and had no kids. I had come with a friend, so I couldn't leave, but I sure 'checked-out' from the rest of her teachings. Now I'm careful to get details before I go to seminars/etc.
    My recent post Sunday Saying – Thankful

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    I have a very similar story working as the Fuller Brush Man when I was in High School. The trainer/facilitator would give us our sample case and drill us on what to say. He would drive us to the neighborhood we were to sell in and then drop us off on the end of a street. Three hours later he would pick us up, collect the sales receipts and drop us off back at the warehouse. We were on our own going from house to house. I don't know if the driver/trainer had ever actually made a sales call.

    It was a tough but interesting job. I learned more about people in those three hours a day, knocking on doors, than any other job I have ever had. In those days people were friendly and a lot of people were glad to see the "Fuller Brush Man," with his free samples and innovative products. I always did better in the poorer parts of town which taught me a huge lesson about sales prospecting.

    I'll never forget my biggest sale. It was to an older woman in an old house in the worst part of town. The back patio had a dirt floor. She wouldn't take my free sample, but she bought brooms, mops, and a big bucket. I was beaming when I added it up and the sale came to $75.

    I always knew that my trainer was parked at the end of the street, but there was something to be said about having to go it alone. It gave me courage and developed my personality. I can't imagine going door to door today, but that training years ago was worth a lot more than the $1.65 an hour that it paid.
    My recent post Shorten Your Tweets For Success

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I sold door-to-door as well: Fuller Brush, cable, and encyclopedias. It was very difficult work. I had to overcome sales reluctance—with every call. I think I learned my most important life lessons in those jobs.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

        Encyclopedias… no wonder you are so good at selling books! One of my greatest mentors was a sales manager named Gary, that I worked with on a later sales job. He was amazing. He was in the trenches working with me and showing me the ropes at least one day a month. You can talk and train all you want, but to actually do the job hands on is the best teacher. When you are in the field with a master salesman, you learn things that no sales program would ever teach.
        My recent post The Genesis of Better Blog Design

      • Ron

        The New Yorks Times has a feature in every Sunday’s Business Section called CEO Corner, in which a business leader shares leadership lessons. One of my favorite metaphors from a recent column;
        ” I never want to forget what it is like on the front lines and the sound of bullets whizzing by my head.” James Rodgers

  • http://philgerbyshak.com Phil Gerbyshak

    You are so right Michael. Without experience, leadership is hollow (at best). Leaders have to be willing to step up and go first, so people know the terrain is safe for them to explore.

    This is why some folks vehemently believe those who can, do, and those who can't teach. I'd argue the best teachers are ones who can do and can teach.

    Thanks for the reminder!
    My recent post The Truth About Selling? It’s Really Giving

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I couldn't agree more. Last fall I heard Gen. Tommy Franks lecture. You could tell he had been on the field and new what it was to go first.

  • Geoff Webb

    I agree. Going first is critical to effective leadership – sounds like your instructor knew it too by the way he reacted.

    The same concept is at work when you're leading people who have more experience than you. As an Army attack helicopter company commander I had specialized mechanics under me who knew a lot more about the ins and outs of detailed maintenance inspections than I did. I made it a point to join the night shift regularly to help them turn wrenches. It was fun for me to learn more about my aircraft, talk with my soldiers, and – honestly – get my hands dirty. Later, when I left command, they told me that time spent with them late at night was one of the biggest reasons they felt so appreciated. They felt like I "got" what they had to go through.

    So it's never too late to "go first."

    My recent post How do you Prevent Backsliding?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That is a great point and an excellent example. Thanks so much!

  • Erin Schreyer

    Great post, Michael! Indeed, it's so important for leaders to go where they are calling their people! I would also add, for clarification, that this doesn't mean the leader needs to "know everything" or have experienced everything. They should want lift their team and their team's strengths; leverage their experiences and expertise if it is greater than that of the leader's. This is an ideal vision of teamwork and leveraging the best of what everyone brings to the table. The smartest leaders know when to lead and when to follow as well!!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Excellent point!

  • Kim Pagel

    Love the Lt. Moore quote. When I introduce our Middle School and High School Pastors to parents, I introduce them as "experts" because they have teens in their own home! No theory here, just ideas and insight forged through the lens of Scripture and real life.

  • http://www.twitter.com/brodwyn Brodwyn

    Shew! Powerful post! And a reality-check at the same time, because doesn't it just paint the truest picture of the courage and sacrifice needed by a leader. Sometimes everybody wants to be the "leader"… but here is the cost upfront. The question we aspiring leaders, then, must ask ourselves is: "Am I willing to pay the cost?"… Great post!
    My recent post brodwyn: People of character, driven by vision, standing on principles, engaging each other REALLY do sharpen each other like iron sharpens iron!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lindsey_Nobles Lindsey_Nobles

    I think I have seen this in the church more than anywhere else. It is amazing having a pastor who is real, transparent, and not afraid to admit he struggles. It allows a congregation to go second, to follow his lead.

    My recent post The Sin of Omission

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    Great post. There is no teacher like experience. This is why I would hire someone with a undergraduate degree and five years experience before I would hire a candidate with an MBA who had not yet been in the business world.
    My recent post Now “choice” is controversial?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RachelleGardner RachelleGardner

    This is not an answer to your question, but I just wanted to mention that I think this new TV show "Undercover Boss" is going to uncover a lot of situations where the CEO has never done the job of his/her employees. I'm fascinated by it and can't wait to watch!

  • Rachel wojnarowski

    Such a simple concept, yet often overlooked. I was thinking of how often we see this displayed in nature. What keeps leaders from being the first to step up? Fear of failure?

  • Neil

    Leaders are the ones who take the initiatives, often single handedly and are then joined by others to help in. And when all falls down, they’re the first to get the flak.

    The joys and troubles of being a leader! The Colonel who stood by his troops and Paul who led by example (Christ still being the best)are very good illustrations of endurance in one post.Great post Mr. Hyatt.

    Btw, I’ve been meaning to ask, do you have any relation to the famous Hyatt Hotels? :)

  • Matt

    Loved the reference to Hal Moore. We (http://www.SimpleTruths.com) did a book on his life called A Tender Warrior, and it's in my top 3.

    There's that phrase, "those who can't do, teach." What do you think about that, Michael? I've found that, in my experience, the best teachers and coaches might not be the best performers. However, the best performers usually aren't very good at explaining what they do intuitively. In your case, though, I do see how never stepping foot into the field really takes away from the credibility, and I would feel the same way!

    In my own life, I think about where I would like to be in 20 years. I think about what I would like to teach to coworkers, coach to teams, and explain to my children. I'm pretty far off from some of those goals, but I'm working on becoming more accomplished in the fields. So, when the time comes for me to step into a leadership role, I will have that experience to share.
    My recent post Mondays with Mac: The Patrick Henry Hughes Story

  • http://danlynchonline.com Dan Lynch

    Love this Mike. This goes along with several other key things I believe. Added to this I’d say

    * Leaders must take responsibility.
    * Leaders should treat others with respect

    The other big one to me is a quote I heard on a Paul Harvey broadcast at least 20 years ago. It has stuck with me. It was “There is no limit to how far a man can go if he doesn’t care who gets the credit”.

    I am proud to be part of a company where the majority of leaders adhere to all of these.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Beaconhillnw @jim_gray

    wow…what a great article…just read this to my wife…
    My recent post Crime and @ Replies

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  • http://halhunter.blogspot.com Hal Hunter

    I once worked for a fairly large regional bank that required every manager, right up to the president and senior management group, to spend one full day per quarter working in a branch office as a new accounts or lending officer- eight hours, direct customer contact. They also had a policy of requiring management trainees to actually work as tellers, loan collectors, telephone service reps, and in various back room and clerical positions for periods of up to three months. The officers and managers had a much greater appreciation for their employees, and the employees knew their leaders had a better understanding of their challenges.

  • http://hookembookem.blogspot.com/ Mark Young

    Leading by example is true leadership. One of the most vivid memories about leadership I learned came from a lieutenant I served with in Vietnam. He walked with us, faced dangers with us, and knew his men–their strengths and weaknesses. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty. And when the time came for leadership in the midst of battle, his men followed and gave their all because they respected him. Great article.

  • http://twitter.com/dboguejmatthews @dboguejmatthews

    Great post. Lt. Col Moore is very inspiring. There are many leaders who are like that, they "Lead from the Front" and people follow them in droves.

  • Emily

    This probably isn't what you'd hope I took away from a truly wonderful article on leadership… BUT… you were once a summer intern?! WHERE in the WORLD are all the summer interns with your potential now? I'm finding it difficult to locate "thinkers" who want to become "writers".

    That aside… thanks for another great perspective on leading people with authenticity and experience, as opposed to "theory".

  • http://www.aardsma.com Mark Aardsma

    Thanks Michael, I really agree with this and I've lived it as a small business owner with good results for my growth and morale with workers.

    I'm wondering though, when it comes to delegating, is there another side of the coin? Because I love to learn, it has been my tendency to learn everything before I ask someone else to do it. As my company is getting bigger, that's becoming a bottleneck. A leadership coaching group I am part of has encouraged me that I don't have to learn everything, I can hire people to do some of the things I don't know how to do. And clearly there is a time to delegate a task I am not competent at to someone who is. For example, a CEO might ask a CFO to prepare a financial report that the CEO is not skilled to prepare himself.

    I'm thinking about how to reconcile these two ideas, because this affects my actions as I make real-life delegating decisions in my company. Here's a stab at it..

    1. This always applies to responsibility. A leader should never expect his followers to bear the consequences of something he is not ultimately willing to take responsibility for. The Commander in Chief is responsible for the outcome of the war even though he was not on the battlefield. The CEO is responsible for the accuracy of financial statements, even if he did not prepare them.
    2. This applies better to differences of *will* than differences of *skill*. It's ok for a leader to be less skilled than those he is leading in some areas, especially at high levels of the organizational structure, but if the leader simply doesn't have the will to face the tough stuff, that's a big problem.
    3. This applies more specifically to team leaders of direct reports than to those far apart in the chain of command. It doesn't make sense for the President of the United States to lead charges into battle, even though he is the commander in chief. He has a different role in the war.
    4. This does apply to specific skills when the leader is responsible to tell his followers *how* to carry out the mission. A platoon leader does that with his soldiers, and this was also the case in the story in your post. On the other hand, A CEO does not teach his CFO how to do accounting.

    I'm sure you and other commentors could boil this down further or expand on the balance in delegating and in being an out-front leader. Thanks for stimulating the thought process and for everything you share here.

    Mark
    My recent post Are You Changed by Your Writing?

  • http://www.aardsma.com Mark Aardsma

    Thanks Michael, I really agree with this and I've lived it as a small business owner with good results for my growth and morale with workers.

    I'm wondering though, when it comes to delegating, is there another side of the coin? Because I love to learn, it has been my tendency to learn everything before I ask someone else to do it. As my company is getting bigger, that's becoming a bottleneck. A leadership coaching group I am part of has encouraged me that I don't have to learn everything, I can hire people to do some of the things I don't know how to do. And clearly there is a time to delegate a task I am not competent at to someone who is. For example, a CEO might ask a CFO to prepare a financial report that the CEO is not skilled to prepare himself.

    I'm thinking about how to reconcile these two ideas, because this affects my actions as I make real-life delegating decisions in my company. Here's a stab at it..

    1. This always applies to responsibility. A leader should never expect his followers to bear the consequences of something he is not ultimately willing to take responsibility for. The Commander in Chief is responsible for the outcome of the war even though he was not on the battlefield. The CEO is responsible for the accuracy of financial statements, even if he did not prepare them.
    2. This applies better to differences of *will* than differences of *skill*. It's ok for a leader to be less skilled than those he is leading in some areas, especially at high levels of the organizational structure, but if the leader simply doesn't have the will to face the tough stuff, that's a big problem.
    3. This applies more specifically to team leaders of direct reports than to those far apart in the chain of command. It doesn't make sense for the President of the United States to lead charges into battle, even though he is the commander in chief. He has a different role in the war.
    4. This does apply to specific skills when the leader is responsible to tell his followers *how* to carry out the mission. A platoon leader does that with his soldiers, and this was also the case in the story in your post. On the other hand, A CEO does not teach his CFO how to do accounting.

    I'm sure you and other commentors could boil this down further or expand on the balance in delegating and in being an out-front leader. Thanks for stimulating the thought process and for everything you share here.

    Mark
    My recent post Are You Changed by Your Writing?

  • http://diongovender.wordpress.com Dion Govender

    Great post, it’s amazing how effective a leader can be by getting his hands dirty. Without saying the words you are communicating “I’m here to support you”. The words every subordinate longs to hear.

  • http://www.joetye.com Joe Tye

    In the Israeli army this is known as the Palmach Doctrine. In the attack, officers lead the charge; on retreat, officers make up the rear-guard. Not only does this inspire the troops, it helps prevent suicide charges and hasty withdrawals.

    In inventory management, it's the FIFO principle – first in, last out.

  • http://www.paulwallis.net Paul Anthony Wallis

    Mike this is so true. There is a leadership paradigm widely accepted in many of the churches today which says that leadership is about getting others to do what you want them to. You very rightly point out that the New Testament way is “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” The Gospel way is “Now that I your Lord and master have washed your feet…”

    Leadership resides in HOW a person SHARES the being and doing that God has called them to.

    Bossing people around is not only not leadership it is specifically a form of “not-leadership” which Jesus famously pans in the Gospel (Lk 22.24-27). The reality: If you’re not leading by example, you’re not leading, you’re just barking orders.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      This is so true. People so often confuse position with influence. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Kevin_Martineau Kevin_Martineau

    Awesome challenge! Thanks, I needed to read that today!
    My recent post What Heroes taught me about bitterness and anger

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I know my experience in writing has made me a better English teacher. When my students complain about not wanting to do a writing assignment, I know what they are talking about. And, as I venture farther into writing my blog, I am continually checking my life to make sure my actions match my words. The power comes in the doing, not just in the saying.
    My recent post #28 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE NEW BIRTH

  • Christianne

    Oooh … I love what you've shared here. It gave me goose bumps a couple of times.

    First I thought about how this applies to my work setting. I just joined a group of people in a really exciting endeavor, and I have come to respect my boss (who is one of the co-presidents of the company) so much because he has been in the trenches and done what he is asking us to do. It was like the exact opposite of what you described in this encounter with the trainer. Reading your post bolstered my gratitude even more for the situation God has given to me to steward.

    And second, what you're asking there at the end about stepping up and going first is similar to something I've been contemplating since I finished reading Seth Godin's book Tribes a few weeks ago. I have a burden on my heart for a particular subject, and Seth helped me realize that stepping out and going first — plus leading by the example of my own life — is really the crux of it. So I've been moving forward toward this goal. It's exciting to me!
    My recent post Noticing God in Everyday Life

  • Christianne

    Oooh … I love what you've shared here. It gave me goose bumps a couple of times.

    First I thought about how this applies to my work setting. I just joined a group of people in a really exciting endeavor, and I have come to respect my boss (who is one of the co-presidents of the company) so much because he has been in the trenches and done what he is asking us to do. It was like the exact opposite of what you described in this encounter with the trainer. Reading your post bolstered my gratitude even more for the situation God has given to me to steward.

    And second, what you're asking there at the end about stepping up and going first is similar to something I've been contemplating since I finished reading Seth Godin's book Tribes a few weeks ago. I have a burden on my heart for a particular subject, and Seth helped me realize that stepping out and going first — plus leading by the example of my own life — is really the crux of it. So I've been moving forward toward this goal. It's exciting to me!
    My recent post Noticing God in Everyday Life

  • http://www.leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

    Mike,

    Thanks for your insights. I think conflict is a hard place to step up and lead by example. When I run from conflict I set a bad example. I tell people the vision isn't worth facing the problem.

    Leadership Freak,
    Dan Rockwell

    My recent post Don’t narrow the dream expand the team

  • http://www.christianclothingblog.com Greg Ryan

    Great post, since just about everyone related to business, I’d like to bring it closer to “home”.

    I find the same thing is true at home. I have the absolute best attachment for my lawnmower (My 14 year old son) but it took time on my part to show him what I expected when I told him to cut the yard. Instead of explaining what I meant, I showed him time and again. I think he is finally getting it.

    When I do the laundry, dishes or vacuuming my wife and children see there is no job “below” me. This form of leadership makes it easy to ask and expect things to be done around the house when dad is gone.

  • http://www.simonhay.com/ Simon Hay

    I believe I lead by example with my work. I dare to be brave, to share what I experience knowing I will be judged and challenged by some people. I believe the gift of healing can change the world. I push the boundaries of what's expected and has been showcased before in my field. I don't pretend to be anyone but myself. I've absolute faith.

    I've made mistakes as a parent and a partner. Some I've repeated. I believe a mistake is only a mistake if it happens twice. Until then it is an experience. I can look back and see I need to take charge and lead by example in some areas of my life.

    Thank you Michael, Simon.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    I've always had great respect for practitioners. Commentators are colorful but I'd much rather be around those who are willing to roll up their sleeves. I've always believed that I would never ask someone to do something I would not be willing to do myself and for me, that motto has served well. People trust you when they know you will walk out front on their behalf instead of expecting them to walk out front for you.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/brianrfrench Brian French

    I agree that personal experience is the most powerful sphere for gaining knowledge, but it cannot be the only one. Otherwise we could never teach about something like the harm that drugs do unless we personally experience it.

    This isn't about having gone first. It's about being willing to go first. If he had said (even at the end of the training), I've never done this either but I'm so confident in this training and knowledge I am going to try it myself, would you still feel betrayed? Probably not.

    This is why we can listen to people who don't have experience if they are willing to practice what they preach.

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  • Trey

    This is why it's so funny to me that so many people i know are becoming or have become personal "Life" Coaches…etc. I mean, many of us are far from perfect, but what qualifies someone to be a life coach? By what measure do they certify you so that you can coach me on how to live my life. Its the same concept of NOT leading by example.

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  • Amy

    LOVE this post. I've been reading about Caleb in Numbers 13 the past couple days, and how he never gave up and was such a steadfast example to the Israelites. I hope to lead, live and write like this. Thanks for (re)posting this. It encouraged me today.

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  • R. Wayne Powell

    This is awesome…I need to change. Been working on some areas. My youngest son needs to change a few things too (he’s just like me.) Maybe I can step into the field of battle and he will follow.

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  • http://www.embracepositivepassion.com Georgiana

    Real leaders have been there, done that. They have experienced what they are teaching. Knowledge without real life application is meaningless. I totally agree that genuine leaders need to have gone through their own instruction in order to be qualified to be an honest leader.

  • http://modernservantleader.com/ 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.

  • http://www.forward-living.com 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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