It’s Not About Me

by Stephen T. Messenger

September 28, 2021

“That’s the whole challenge of life – to act with honor and hope and generosity, no matter what you’ve drawn.” –Anton Myrer

This week, I had the honor of promoting to the rank of Colonel in the United States Army. As I looked back over a 21-year career, I reflected to select one, seminal leadership lesson I wanted to pass along to military and civilian leaders, and especially my children. 

I thought finding this seminal lesson would be a challenging exercise, but I got to my answer rather quickly because, honestly, I’ve struggled with this more than I care to admit.

It’s not about me.

One of the biggest reasons I love the military is that it’s a team sport where organizational success is a collective goal greater than oneself, namely national security, comradery and esprit de corps, and small unit interaction. This profession is truly founded on selfless service, with people prepared to sacrifice their lives to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the greatest Nation on Earth.

One of the challenges I have with the military is that it’s very promotion centric. There’s an “up or out culture” where the nature of the system sometimes leads toward direct competition for the top report card. While this can draw out the best in leaders and organizations, it sometimes creates an unhealthy environment based on individual personalities in a unit.

Anton Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle directly addresses the tension between organizational success and individual achievement.

The protagonist Sam Damon is a career Army officer who is the exemplar of a serving leader. He spends his military life focused on organizational goals and placing the unit above his career and himself. In World War I, he repeatedly risks his life charging through no-man’s land to allow other forces to exploit these gains.

He sets high standards and demanding training for both himself and his soldiers to prepare for the next engagement. Never one to shy away from honest and unpopular opinions, Sam provides frank assessments to superiors they may not want to hear. Through this, he achieves organizational and personal success while understanding his career is not about him.

His counterpart, Courtney Massengale, has many of the same positive traits and attributes as Sam. He is tactically and technically competent, smart, ambitious, and strives for organizational success. However, Courtney’s fatal flaw is that he believes the Army is there to serve him.

Courtney is driven by self-gain, personal accolades, and future opportunities. At one point in World War II, his unit is under an assault by the Japanese and one portion is in danger of defeat. However, Courtney pulls back a second unit that could have saved the other so Courtney could have the honor of capturing the first intact Japanese city. The opposite of Sam’s career mentality, Courtney lives his life thinking it’s all about him.

There are many nuances to these characters, but generally they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Few leaders today can be characterized as either a pure Sam or Courtney. Instead, most leaders live tenuously in the middle of the personal accolades-servant leadership spectrum.

Below are a few examples across my 21-year career of when I’ve struggled with this same tension:

– Receiving a Mediocre Report Card. After pouring my heart and soul into both mission success and taking care of soldiers, I’ve at times still gotten less than stellar evaluations resulting in a subsequent, personal funk. Great leaders can shrug off what others think of them knowing they are trying their hardest to achieve mission goals while supporting their team. It’s not about your report card.

– Public Correction. Unfortunately, we’ve all had leaders who chastise in an open forum. After a public rebuke, it’s not about how you’re percieved by those around you, it’s how you pick yourself up and move forward to the next objective with those you lead. You are not defined by one bad encounter.

– Receiving Praise. It’s great to hear others complement you. However, leaders must quickly and unabashedly default to pushing recognition down to those who are truly doing the work. Leaders lift others up and highlight the skills and talents of those who are often in the background. It’s about them.   

– Trusting Subordinates. Micromanagement is an art that many, sadly, have mastered. However, great leaders provide their subordinates with tasks meant to result in shared understanding and then trust them to take initiative to complete their job. Don’t do their job for them.

– Thanking Others. Life happens fast. After one project is over, the next one is in your face. You have to take time to celebrate the wins and thank those that have sacrificed time, money, and effort to achieve your goals. A simple handshake goes a long way. A written note goes further.

The list of struggles I’ve had is endless. It’s easy for leaders to get caught up in themselves and consider how today’s actions affect tomorrow’s plans. But at the end of the day, leadership is not about the leader. It is about the organization’s goals and the people they lead.

As my children, my acquaintances, and I advance in life, I believe we will all be fully successful if we master this one lesson:

It’s not about me.


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