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We Need More Leaders

Johnny Bravo, the A-10 pilot who believed that his greatest asset was the empathy he had for the men on the ground, learned what it really takes to be a leader a few years after his experience in Afghanistan. It was after he landed his plane following a training mission in the Nevada desert. His crew chief, the airman assigned to look after his aircraft, came over to greet him and help him out of the jet. On that day, the crew chief was off his game and distracted, and Johnny Bravo snapped at him. He expects the people around him to be at their best so he can be at his best and support those on the ground.

His crew chief apologized. He was tired because he didn’t get enough sleep, he explained. He was going to night school and he and his wife had a new baby who kept them up at night. And it was at that moment that Johnny Bravo realized that empathy is not something we give to the nameless, faceless people we aim to serve. Empathy is not something we offer to our customers or our employees from nine to five. Empathy is, as Johnny Bravo explains, “a second by second, minute by minute service that [we] owe to everyone if [we] want to call [ourselves] a leader.”

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more.

And that’s the trouble. Leadership takes work. It takes time and energy. The effects are not always easily measured and they are not always immediate. Leadership is always a commitment to human beings.

Everything about being a leader is like being a parent. It is about committing to the well-being of those in our care and having a willingness to make sacrifices to see their interests advanced so that they may carry our banner long after we are gone.

A Call to Lead

Sir Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century English physicist, offered as his Second Law of Motion the formula f = ma. Force equals mass times acceleration. When the mass we aim to move is great, we must apply more force. If we wish to change the direction of a large company or solve a large problem, we need to apply a huge force. And this is often what we do. We have a big repositioning or a big reorg. The trouble with applying large force to anything, however, is it rattles us. We fear it may cause more harm than good. It undermines the Circle of Safety.

However, there is another variable that we often neglect. The “a,” for acceleration. Who says the change has to be sudden or instantaneous? Great leaders like Bob Chapman, Charlie Kim, Captain David Marquet did not march in with new theories and start dismantling their organizations. They tinkered. They applied small changes. They experimented. Some of their experiments worked. Some didn’t. And in time, momentum built, the changes added up and the organizations and the people within them were transformed.

Leadership, true leadership, is not the bastion of those who sit at the top. It is the responsibility of anyone who belongs to the group. Though those with formal rank may have authority to work at greater scale, each of us has a responsibility to keep the Circle of Safety strong. We must all start today to do little things for the good of others ... one day at a time.