The President of the United States – who serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the U. S. Armed Forces – touched off a firestorm of commentary and debate in September 2014 when he rendered a “salute” to his Marine guard while holding a coffee cup in his saluting hand. Some have cited the President’s salute as a significant sign of his disdain for all things military. Others have opined that the salute was sloppy, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s an insignificant matter.
As firefighters we likely hold a wide variety of opinions on such matters. I have a strong opinion myself, but my purpose here is not to resolve the debate around “The Salute” but to examine the matter as a brief leadership case-study. Viewed through this focused lens, “The Salute” proves the old adage: ACTIONS speak louder than words.
From a fire service leadership perspective, here are some thoughts to ponder:
#1 – What Are Our Actions Telling Others?
In a team environment, how would a junior person fare if his or her ACTIONS were the same as YOUR actions as a leader?
I can tell you from personal experience that ANY soldier, sailor or airman who rendered a salute with a coffee cup in their saluting hand would be disciplined on the spot. In the fall of 1986 I was a Plebe at the United States Naval Academy. On a beautiful fall day we were playing football against Syracuse.
During the National Anthem before the game I was standing at attention and rendering a salute to the flag, as were the other 4,500 Midshipman. As the Anthem played, the Syracuse mascot – a gi-normous, comedic orange – ran from the top of a grass hill, dove head-first, and started rolling and bouncing down the hill. I snickered.
An upperclassman rightly took offense to my lack of discipline. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen were standing watch on the front lines of freedom, defending our flag, and I was standing there snickering during the National Anthem.
It was not one of my finer moments. For that momentary snicker, I marched eight hours. Anyone who’s served in the armed forces has probably seen discipline – sometimes harsh – associated with a poor salute.
As a leader in the fire service, don’t behave in ways that would result in discipline if someone else – especially a junior person – were to exhibit the same behavior.
#2 – How Does It Appear On Camera?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture (or video) of a leader involved in action is worth a thousand thousand words!
We are under the constant watch of millions of cameras. We may as well accept the fact that any action we take will be published for anyone to see.
Are the ACTIONS you are taking suitable for the front page of your local paper? If they’re not, you need to change your actions.
#3 – Helping Our Leaders
Where were the Commander-in-Chief’s “helpers” in this situation?
The President has exited the Marine 1 helicopter thousands of times. He, and everyone around him, knows that there will be Marines, and cameras, on the other side of that aircraft door. Why didn’t someone say, “Mr. President, give me that coffee cup”?
It can be hard to be direct with persons in positions of power, especially the leader of the free world. But leaders absolutely need the people around them to help avoid costly mistakes. As a leader, have you empowered those around you to help you avoid “bonehead” moves?
The real “work” of leadership is communication. We tend to think of communication as an endeavor in words. We speak. We write. We communicate. Words are important — but words are cheap. Nothing communicates more than example. Nothing communicates more than action.
Feature photo courtesy of DailyHerald.com Staff Photographer Welsh
FFTB Photo courtesy of Robert Cannon.