Why Real Leaders Eat Last -It’s in the Leadership Traits

Leadership Traits

Early in my career I served in the military, and I was fortunate to be in the storied 101st Airborne Division. That’s where I learned a lesson or two in leadership traits. They are still useful in my business career.

One simple story illustrates the importance of modeling behavior you expect. When I was on active duty we obviously spent a lot of time in the field. Many meals were of the legendary canned variety, but occasionally we had hot meals. When we did, officers ate last.

Why? To be sure, there was enough food for everyone, yes. But eating last underscored a model of behavior. You were looking out for your people just as they should look out for each other. It was a simple visual model of leadership. It showed concern for your people. In today’s political world we see more and more would-be leaders at the head of the line, or maybe not even in line!

Leadership vs. Leaders

Leadership, or being the leader, is more than being in a position of authority. When you think about your leadership style, answer this question: What type of leader am I – what do the circumstances call for? There are “leaders” – either appointed, promoted or even elected – who think all they need to do is “take charge.”

And there are “Leaders” who provide vision, inspiration and transformation so people and organizations achieve a common and clear vision.

Dysfunctional Politics

To see the difference, we just need to watch our political process unfold every day. In part, our dysfunctional national leadership stems from folks exempting themselves from the very laws they pass.

How different would the affordable healthcare rollout have been if every lawmaker had to sign up. What if the president himself knew he was going to be on live television as the first subscriber? Any chance the system would not have worked?

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Sometimes being a good leader requires you to eat your own cooking, which is no different than a chef tasting the soup. If you don’t taste it, how do know if it’s any good? The people you lead should not be the canaries in the mine, heading in first to see if the air is clean.

The same goes for business leaders who make one set of rules for the rank and file while they live by another. Your actions frame your company’s culture. I know of a company where one CEO was so focused on his self-important appearance that it was reflected in the choices company executives made in their travel arrangements – hotel selections, limousine services, meals and the like. It was all justified, as one executive put it, by simply asking what would “so and so” do?

Now we aren’t talking about choices made for efficiency, such as a car service to move you quickly between meetings. We are talking about extravagances for the sake of entitlement.

Actions and Morale

Leadership author Michael Hyatt writes about how General George B. McClellan, commander of the “Army of the Potomac” during the Civil War, abused his privilege of leadership before he was fired by President Abraham Lincoln: “While his troops were struggling in almost unbearable conditions, McClellan lived in near-royal splendor. He spent almost every evening entertaining guests with elaborate dinners and parties. He insisted on the best clothes and accommodations. His lifestyle stood in distinct contrast to General Ulysses S. Grant, his eventual successor, who often traveled with only a toothbrush.”

Somewhere in between lies a reasonable alternative. Rank does have its privileges. Excessive demands on a Leader’s schedule, which warrant certain efficiencies, do give the appearance of comfort. So be aware. Make smart choices that model what you want your organization to do. If necessary, make sure they know when you make a choice for expedience or efficiency.