A harsh reality of the world that we live in today is that a large majority of people in leadership positions are selfish. This should come as no surprise to many of you that it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about politicians, CEO’s, supervisors, etc., the lure to leadership positions is often driven by the perceived authority and power that comes with those roles. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for the power that comes with leadership to be used for nothing other than pursuing the leaders own self interests…but why?
Well, somehow the majority of the “leaders” in our world today have convinced themselves that the pursuit of their own self interests should come above all else and that their own well-being is more important than that of those they lead. They’ve convinced themselves that the power and authority that comes with many leadership roles entitles them to a certain level of self-gratification above all else…
This is why I decided to share with you one of the military’s most time-honored leadership traditions in this blog post. This lesson has taught me how important humility and sacrifice are in effective leadership. It’s also how I realized that although we may be in the minority, the best leaders are those who live and breathe for the benefit of those they lead and who will always put the needs of their followers above their own.
For those of you who have read either of my first two books (available here: https://timothynataleauthor.com/shop/), you know that I lived the vast majority of my life before the military as a very selfish person. However, I quickly learned that the military has an unprecedented way of humbling people just enough to help them realize how important humility truly is in life.
In my case, this humbling lesson came early in basic training when myself and three of my fellow soldiers were “volunt-TOLD” that we were to assume the role of team leaders for our platoon. For those of you unfamiliar with what it means to be “volun-TOLD” to do something, it’s just like volunteering except you weren’t given any choice and someone forced you to do it. When the time came to prepare our platoon for dinner, the four of us rushed to be the first in line assuming the rest of the platoon would fall in behind us but man were we wrong…
A hoard of drill sergeant surrounded the four of us screaming about how selfish we were as “leaders” to have rushed to the front of the line. One of the earliest lessons we learned as kids was to “follow the leader”, right? This is when the leader lined up first and everyone else followed in line but this was apparently not the case for military chow time…
From that moment on it was very clear that leaders were to eat last, but why?
Well, as the days and weeks went on, it became evidently clear that leadership is about so much more than just barking orders and being the first to do everything. More importantly, we learned that above all else, leadership is about selfless sacrifice. In the military, you have no place in leadership if you do not put the needs of those you lead above your own. Civilian life isn’t much different. In fact, your primary responsibility as the leader in the military is to maintain the well-being of your troops. So as cliché as it may sound, how can you do that if you feed yourself before your troops have had a chance to eat?
It wasn’t just basic training in which leaders ate last. Following basic training, I spent the next two years in Germany and on every holiday the highest ranking officers and enlisted leaders put on a smock and served food to all of the soldiers on base before any of them took a single bite to eat.
Everyday from that moment onward I was always the last to eat. Whether I was in an assigned leadership role or not, I ate last because it reminded me that putting others first should always be my primary focus. Sure, there were plenty of hungry days but in the end, it was always worth it because I had ingrained in myself that selfless sacrifice was to remain the foundation of who I wanted to become as a leader.
Now, nearly 8 years after I learned this valuable lesson, it drives my wife insane that I do that very same thing at home. I eat only after my family has eaten.
In its simplest form, leadership is the responsibility of one to care for many and as trivial as it may appear, by allowing those you lead to eat before you, you are ensuring their needs are met before you meet your own needs as the leader.
A great deal of people will scoff at this idea because our we live in a society built on the idea that it’s “every man (or woman) for themselves” and that you need to care for yourself before anyone else. But this mindset has no place in leadership.
Although as the leader, we may sign paychecks, carry more stress and hold final decision making authority, the well-being of our followers should always remain our number one priority. The sooner you accept this, the better leader you will become.
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