A paramount virtue of a true leader is the ability to recognize the need to step up and lead regardless of whether anyone is watching or where the spotlight may be pointed. Some people aspire to lead, and need others follow them in order to bolster up their self-esteem and self-worth. Recently, my brother lent me a book, Falling to Earth
by Astronaut Al Worden, the Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot. I have always been fascinated by the US and Soviet/Russian space programs since I vaguely remember the 1971 Apollo 15 live coverage. What was most interesting about this book, was its uncanny similarity to other books I have read recently on the 101st Airborne 506th Parachute Infantry; better known as "The Band of Brothers." Stephen Ambrose wrote a book, of the same name back in 1992 which was later produced as a ten episode HBO miniseries chronicling the Easy Company soldiers from their training in Toccoa, Georgia through the Normandy Invasion, Battle of the Bulge, and the final surrender of Germany in World War II.
When I watched the episodes for the first time, I was entranced by the sheer determination of the soldiers to persevere and fight throughout some of the most miserable conditions imaginable. The series brought to light the importance of true leadership and how the lack thereof was deadly. Much like any movie or television production, the stories were modified and characters simplified to accommodate the script. I knew that there was much more to the experience than that contained in the mini-series. I found additional books that were written by the men of Easy Company including: Beyond Band of Brothers
by Dick Winters, Easy Company Solider
by Don Malarkey, and We Who Are Alive and Remain
by Marcus Brotherton along with over a dozen of surviving E-Company veterans.
These books painted a much richer picture of the challenges that were endured by these, and other men as they fought, bled, and died for our freedom. What these books about wartime leadership had in common with Worden's book, was that none of these men stepped into their obligations looking to lead others into glory. These heroes did not study management skills in training seminars or in books. Their true talents were activated out of necessity. Each of the leaders in these books rose to the occasion when needed, not even when asked or opportune.
The US Space Program of the 60's and 70's was a high profile lifestyle for the astronauts. Not only did they have the responsibility of flying a new type of craft into the unknown, but they had to assist in the design, testing, and refining of the very equipment they were to place their lives upon. On top of those responsibilities, they served in the spotlight for public appearances on television, on the radio, and in person for public events. For someone who craved attention and accolades, it was the perfect job. Most US Astronauts were test pilots, and virtually unknown before the space program even though they took the greatest risks while pushing flying machines to the limit to reduce risks for others, they normally weren't ones to bask themselves in stardom.
Likewise, the soldiers of Easy Company, of the 101st Airborne were just regular guys who responded to the call of our country to fight against the Axis Powers. They became heroes through deed, not through degrees or certifications. They had no idea that their experiences would inspire generations to follow, on how to truly lead others. There were no book signing deals or red-carpet promises made to them when the volunteered for the Airborne, other than an extra $50 a month.
What is most amazing, is that these leaders had to persevere, even when they were brought down to their lowest levels of self-esteem through circumstances beyond their anticipation. A true leader is able to work through near defeat, retreat, investigation, and even ostracizing from their comrades. The men in these books, along with countless others not mentioned knew when their leadership was necessary and exercised it without delay regardless of the title or position they held at the time. In many of these cases, these same individuals assumed more everyday roles once the burden was pulled, only later to activate themselves in completely different situations, but when certainly needed. My admiration for them stems from not just leading for their own needs, but because each one of them knew that it was their time to step up for something greater than any self-interest.
In business culture, where our accomplishments are so heavily weighted towards promotions, pay increases and appreciation; it is easy to lead for our own self interests. How easily forgotten is the virtue of true leadership, when we step up when needed without being asked or directly rewarded. I am thankful that I am able to read and enjoy these real stories, about true leaders, and share them with you.
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