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What is a Leader? Leaders Go first. A Second Look at Leaders Eat Last.

By Whiskey Tango

Bottom Line Upfront. Leaders go first when everyone is scared and timid.

Short Story. I came down my steep driveway in full brakes. My black huffy mountain bike was perfectly sized for my ten-year-old body. My driveway had a 90-degree bend at the bottom and I leaned the bike to the right to take the turn. It was late fall in North Georgia and I wore my blue Addidas sports jacket. I began pumping the peddles hard as I swayed in rhythm with the bike. I was excited to link up with my friends. I sped down finger creek road heading towards Tom's house. I noticed the colored fall leaves as I peddled through the neighborhood. I love the changing seasons in North Georgia. I was heading off to meet up with the neighborhood bike gang. We planned our meet-up on the bus ride home from school. Tom's house was the central location in the neighborhood. I loved being outside and riding bikes with my friends. A quick half mile later I had arrived and the local gang came pouring in from all directions. Andy, Russel, Tom, Jud, and a few others that I can't seem to remember comprised our bike gang. Upon the last members' arrival, we headed off with a sense of adventure. The mood was playful as we hopped curbs and poked fun at each other. For the third day in a row, we stopped by Miss Carrol's house.

Miss Carrol's driveway was impossibly steep. No one seemed to dare take on the driveway and yet we dared each other to do so. But this day was different, Jud was willing to take the plunge. We all walked our bikes to the top of the driveway and dared Jud to take on the dangerous incline. All of us were too afraid to be the first to try it. Determined to conquer the hill he mounted his bike and took the leap of faith. The speed down the sharp drop was breakneck. His brakes squealed but he had made the journey uninjured. The bike gang hooped and hollered at his victory. Then something amazing happened, one by one we followed suit. The terrifying hill became less intimidating. We linked up at the bottom of the hill and high-fived each other. In our ten-year-old brains, we had survived a brush with death. There was no question for the rest of the day and maybe longer, Jud was the new leader of the pack. He was the leader because he had gone first.

So What? I 100% agree with Simon Sinek, Leaders eat last. This is a principle used by officers in all services. When resources are scarce. When everyone wants to be first in line leaders put themselves last. I would argue equally, if not more important, is that leaders go first. Leaders put themselves first when everyone is scared to go. For example, no one whats to volunteer to broach a topic. Leaders kick it off. No one what's to give directions or expectations for fear of looking stupid. Leaders give it. No one what's to have that uncomfortable conversation or point of correction. Leaders schedule feedback. No one whats to fire the laggard employee. Leaders let them go. Leaders find uncomfortable situations. Either going last or going first and they wade right into it. Leaders make themselves uncomfortable for the sake of those they lead. Here are two tips to overcome the uncomfortable.

The Two R's of uncomfortably

  1. Recognize the moment. There is power in knowing and understanding the social dynamics of a critical moment. When your team is either excited to get a commodity or share an experience. When your team is afraid to step up. When no one whats to raise their hand. When no one wants to share. For me, our team gets new equipment all the time. A fancy new watch. A new knife may come into the supply shop. Am I first in line to get my reward? Or do I put the needs of my team first? Recognize the moment. Also true is the moment when I ask the team to share something uncomfortable. There is an important task specific to my position. Is there something my boss needs to hear and no one will tell them? Is there a public speaking opportunity that no one wants? Do I use my power to pawn off the moment? Or do I mount my bike and charge the hill? Recognize the moment and take the plunge.

  2. Remember the Man in the arena. Teddy Roosevelt will tell you, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”. When you feel scared to act remember you are the person in the arena. So have the courage to act. You may fail. You may wreck your bike. But at least you tried. At least you took the leap of faith. I guarantee your team will respect you more for it. Especially if you admit your shortcomings.

Coaching Recommendations

A message to the readers- If you found my blog insightful, I recommend using it to develop the team you lead. If you don't lead a team consider passing it to someone who does or shoot me a message with your answers. Listed below is a team-building exercise that works with the blog above. Don't be afraid to get personal.

Instructions: Choose one of the following ways.

  1. Have your team preread the above blog and schedule a time to drive discussion questions below

  2. Schedule a lunch and learn session where you carve out time to read the blog together and then review the discussion questions below.

  3. Have your team preread the blog and use the discussion questions as an opener for your weekly meetings.

Discussion questions: (select some or all of the questions below)

  1. Name a time when you should have gone first but didn't. (here is a chance for the leader to discuss first)

  2. What uncomfortable points do we have in our organizations?

  3. Do our organizational leaders get this concept right or wrong?

    1. How could we improve?

  4. How can you relate to the Teddy Roosevelt quote?

  5. What can we do as an enterprise to encourage each other to lead better in this way?


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