Coaching Article – What Does “Leaders Go First” Really Mean? Two Attributes

The frequent torture and abuse were indescribable, but they consistently met the challenge and bounced back. To this day, their example inspires me. I’m referring to our senior leaders in the crucible of the Vietnam POW camps. When the going got tough, their character and behaviors set the example that inspired and influenced the rest of us.

Whether it’s day-to-day leadership or leading through a battle, are you standing out in leading by example? Leadership is about influence, and the concept of “leaders go first” carries a lot of weight.

Two Unwavering Attributes

When I reflect on the examples of those great leaders, two attributes come to mind.  First, they courageously held the line on their commitment to their character. Second, they learned to adapt their behaviors to balance mission and people. Simultaneously they had to deny repeated enemy attempts at exploitation while taking care of their fellow POWs. Given these conditions, their lives were a 24/7 battle of grit and mental discipline to set the example and show us the way.

In this month’s 5-minute coaching clip, I give more examples and insight into these two attributes. Please watch, interact, and post comments as you watch –

(Video not playing? Watch it here.)

Battle for Your Character

Have you realized that we are all only a step away from dishonorable behavior? Have you intentionally  engaged in the battle to guard your own character? We frequently bring this issue up in our training materials, coaching, and presentations for three reasons –

  1. We’re all human and therefore tempted to take shortcuts and pursue our interests at the expense of others.
  2. Bad character, as evidenced by widespread deceit and dishonesty, is undermining the foundations of our culture.
  3. When we violate character basics as leaders, our followers quickly lose trust.

Keep in mind that character issues are easy to spot in others but often myopically difficult to see in ourselves.

“If you’re not in the battle for your character and honor, you are or you’re about to be tumbling over the cliff to failure.” [Tweet This]

If you need more clarity on this character battle, please download our free Honor Code. You’ll see it’s a powerful  guide to stay on course and hold yourself accountable. Remember, good character is the foundation of leading by example.

Work to Gain a Leadership Balance

After more than 20 years of leadership development research and experience, we know that most people are naturally bent or tilted toward either results/mission/tasks or relationships/people. Today we use assessment tools like Leadership Behavior DNA to help leaders grow in this type of awareness. Thankfully, our great leaders in the POW camps had  learned through training and experience to adapt their behaviors to do both.

“While many leaders don’t have a POW experience to help shape their leadership, gaining leadership balance is the challenge that all leaders face.” [Tweet This]

Contrary to what others may recommend, you cannot focus solely on your strengths. Yes, they’re critical for your career/work performance success, but that’s only one side of the seesaw. When you step into any mantle of leadership—personal or professional—you must learn to manage your struggles sufficiently to be a good example on both sides of the balance of results/mission and relationships/people. If you fail to balance –

Achieving the mission <———-> Positively influencing your people

– you’re not setting a good example and you can never be seen as a great leader by your followers.

Here’s a quick test. Can you be tough, set clear standards and hold your people accountable in a timely way, while also giving them regular encouragement and positive feedback to let them know they are valuable, significant, and have great potential? Remember, you don’t need to re-invent yourself—in fact, you can’t. But you can learn to adapt your behaviors to the situation to be a good example of a balanced leader.

The Added Attributes of Courage and Commitment

Both character and leadership balance require courage and commitment. In the POW camps, Lt. Col. Risner and CDRs Stockdale and Denton showed the way for their followers.

I was fortunate to be a very young fighter-pilot who was greatly influenced by their example. Now that I’m an older warrior, I can also say that for most of us, gaining and keeping that balance will be a lifetime struggle. It requires swimming downstream with your best natural talents, and swimming upstream to adapt your behaviors in a few areas that are not natural. But that’s what great leaders do to be a great example and positively influence their people. Take the challenge and jump in the river; you can swim in both directions if you pause and flip the switch.

Finally, the senior leaders in the POW camps would also remind us that we can’t do it alone. Otherwise, it’s overwhelming and it doesn’t give others an opportunity to grow with you. Enlist the help of others with some positive accountability, and you’ll make some significant contributions to the cause of honorable leadership.

LE [Tweet This Article]

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One Comment on “Coaching Article – What Does “Leaders Go First” Really Mean? Two Attributes

Ken Kukla
February 4, 2021 at 7:43 am

Nicely done, Lee. Wonderful message.


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