by Stephen T. Messenger
February 23, 2021
Never in my life had I been so scared. I was 20 years old at Fort Benning, Georgia, recently starting my military career, and staring out the open door of a C-130 Hercules Air Force cargo plane. It was my first jump at Airborne School, a place where they teach soldiers to forcefully launch both themselves and their parachute out of an aircraft. When you arrive at your Army unit, you can then jump with hundreds of your friends and seize an airfield or some other piece of valuable terrain behind enemy lines.
Today, the only job I had was to launch my body out of a perfectly good airplane into the empty blue sky and pray the parachute opened above me. I’ve been training on the ground for the last two weeks, and on my first jump, was pretty sure this was the last day of my life. Even though it was about to end, I thought, I had a good run. And with that, I stepped out the door and into the unknown.
Leading boldly and courageously sounds great on paper. But put into practice, this third attribute of the RALE+1 Leadership Philosophy is challenging to say the least. Stepping out boldly into an unsure future is not natural. However, leaders are called every day to walk with confidence when they cannot predict what’s around the next turn. Perhaps the hardest part is to simply resolve to try your hardest and see who follows.
The 82d Airborne Division, our Nation’s global response force, has a stored legacy when it comes to airborne assaults. One unique tradition is that the leader goes out the airplane before his paratroopers. For example, the platoon leader will be out the door before any of his soldiers. This tradition started in World War II when the officers jumped first to demonstrate leading from the front through a bold and courageous act.
This act is not done out of privilege. In fact, jumping first puts the leader in the most danger both being the initial target and landing on the leading edge of the drop zone with all the firepower behind them. Instead, this act shows their followers that they are ready and willing to face the same danger and lead from the front. Leaders must be willing to face these same challenges without hesitation.
While boldness and courage are synonyms, there is an important nuance.
Lead Boldly: This means going beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action. Difficult problems require bold answers. We need leaders because they are there to solve complicated problems; all the easy ones have been solved already. Many organizations live with the status quo for years and never break from their stagnation. It is up to you to find a new and unique way of advancing your organization forward.
Lead Courageously: Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in the face of it. Great leaders have a different quality in their minds that allow them to face difficulty, danger, or pain and continue to move forward. These situations are not always physical. They can be threats to your emotions, mental state, career, or family. However, the best leaders push through the fear to gain results that others want to emulate.
Leaders are called to be both bold and courageous. Your team is looking for you to lead them out the aircraft door. They need a leader who will take risks to make the organization better and experiment on the team’s behalf to create positive change. They desire to follow someone who is innovative, creative, and working hard for collective success. And most of all, they want to see you exit the aircraft first.
My first jump was by far the scariest. As I clearly remember staring at the open canopy, beautifully and thankfully deployed above me, I now realize that the hardest part of leading boldly and courageously is taking the first step. When I got to my unit, it was still scary, but not as hard to exit the airplane. I looked back and saw a platoon of soldiers all looking at me to jump first. Followers like them deserve someone to run after into the unknown.
It’s your job to challenge the status quo and create positive organizational change when everyone is stagnant but comfortable. It is your duty to act in the face of psychological fears when your big idea could be rejected by your boss. Finally, it’s your responsibility to tackle the tough problem your team faces when no one else in the past wanted to deal with it. And as you, the leader, launch yourself out of that proverbial airplane, the rest of your team will follow.
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Photo Courtesy of: AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, David Smith