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Why True Leaders Lead by Example, Not Just Words: Lessons from General Washington and the Importance

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

“You don't lead people by what you say to them; you lead them by what they see you do. True leaders are self-leaders.”
Israelmore Ayivor

During the American Civil War, a man on horseback was surveying a field. He saw a group of exhausted soldiers digging a trench, while their group leader was barking orders from atop his mount.

The man surveying the field changed directions and directed his path to the snarling leader. The surveyor asked the leader of the trench crew why he wasn’t helping his team. The arrogant leader said he was in charge, his position was to tell his people what to do!

The surveyor decided to pitch in and help the soldiers dig until the trench was finished. The surveyor didn't stir resentment, he didn't complain about the harshness of the work. The surveyor worked the job until all tasks were done and the men were relaxing and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Seeing the men were being taken care of, he approached the leader and told him that the next time his rank prevented them from supporting his men, he should notify the top command!

Scoffing with an air of belligerence, the trench crew leader began to give his opinion of this suggestion to this passerby. During his ranting, reality began to settle in, the trench section leader quickly realized that the person he was talking to was their Battalion Leader. General Washington.

"If Serving's beneath you, then Leadership's beyond you!"

Have you ever experienced working with a leader like that in the story above? An individual who barks orders from their lofty perch, hesitant to jump into the trenches with their people? If you're like me, you can fill a whole book full of stories and the impact these individuals had on their people, organizations, and resources. Why is this commonplace?

At the heart of the matter, I don't believe that an individual who has been rewarded the opportunity to lead begins their leadership journey in this way. I have seen leaders of all caliber and qualities. The ones that fall into this negative category normally have one factor in common; they were promoted based on their ability to accomplish the work they are now overseeing.

These individuals are the go-to experts in the job. The individuals have most likely received extra training in the efforts to become the best in all aspects of the job. Perhaps this training is computer-based, or college classes could be a week-long conference. No matter the forum, these opportunities are all designed to hone the skills of each attendee in a specific function. Task completion.

Again, there is nothing wrong with striving to be the best performer in your discipline. Being promoted due to your hard work and dedication to your craft isn't a bad thing either. In all cases, the promotion came due to your willingness to perform at your best in all aspects of your job. Applying this strategy to leadership is the key to success.

Just like in your previous roles, leadership and management also have skills that need to be learned and mastered. There are educational opportunities that will help you to develop your perspective and skills in an attempt to be the best at your skill set. One of the ways we do this is by listening and reading others' perspectives, like this blog, a book, a podcast, and so many more resources out there.

The best leaders are eager to help and give aid to their followers. Being humble is one of the best ways to ensure that when you mess up, and you will, you keep the respect of your workforce. Imagine how different the influence of the trench leader in the story would have been if he was humble. Remember, the job will always take care of itself, this is after all why were employed and get paid. There are two quotes that have helped me return to real-time after time:

"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care"
President Theodore Roosevelt.

"People quit people, People don't quit jobs"
– Unkown

No matter your level of influence, you have an impact. Never squander your opportunity to positively influence those around you.


Are you interested in hearing a first-hand account of how this topic has impacted the life of a military professional spanning over a decade and a half? Join Alex Riley and me as we discuss the effects this topic has had on his and his family's life as they navigate the waters of life.


"Until Next Time, Climb Together"


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