When the call of leadership comes, what will you do?
Often what makes leaders stand out are not the great deeds but the small acts. Many of these actions may even go unnoticed by most. But cumulatively they demonstrate where the leader’s heart lies, and they build the kind of loyalty that makes teams strong and successful.
This is a story of one such simple act over 50 years ago that left a life-long impression. The call of leadership came, and the way this leader handled it serves as a great model for us all.
Here’s what happened.
The Bat Phone
The phone rang at the Staff Duty desk.
Will was on duty that day as an enlisted Airman. With him was an Air Force Captain he didn’t know, who was in charge of the shift. It was 1965, they were on an air base in Da Nang, Vietnam, far from home in the U.S.
Serving on staff duty means monitoring the radios, answering the phones, and handling any issues that come up when no one else is in the office.
Everyone has to take a turn pulling Staff Duty. Someone has to be on watch at night and over holidays, when most of the offices are empty.
This day happened to be Christmas day.
The Staff Duty office was equipped with everything necessary to do the job, including a special land-line telephone. They called this the “bat phone.” It was rarely used, and seemed to only ring when there was a problem.
Right now, the phone that was ringing was the bat phone.
Will watched as the Captain stepped over and grabbed the receiver. After listening a moment, he asked the person on the other end to hold for a second. He looked over at Will and said, “It’s for you.”
“It’s For You”
Astonished, Will hesitated. The Captain was senior. He was the decision-maker on their little team. It made no sense that he would ask Will to handle whatever important business was coming over the bat phone.
Regardless, that’s what the Captain wanted. Will took the receiver, and answered. “Hello?”
On the other end of the line was an operator from Bell Telephone in San Francisco.
She explained that a donor was covering costs so the phone company could offer free long distance calls to servicemen and women overseas. In those days, access to an overseas phone line was hard to come by, and calling half way around the planet was expensive. She was offering him a chance to talk with his family on Christmas day.
Will quickly overcame his surprise and gave her the number. Within minutes, he was talking happily with his family thousands of miles away.
On a day that might have otherwise been depressing, the call was a rare and wonderful gift. It was a feeling he never forgot.
When the Call Comes…
Years later, Will found himself reflecting on that phone call and came to a sudden realization. The operator didn’t know who he was. In fact, she had no way of knowing who she’d reach when she called.
She had to have been calling from a list of military numbers and offering the free connection to whoever answered at the other end.
The person she reached was the Captain.
The Captain was married, with kids. He was thousands of miles from home. It was Christmas day for him, too.
He could have taken the call. He would have loved a rare opportunity to speak with his wife and children on that special day. After all, he was the one who picked up the phone. He had the highest rank. He carried the most responsibility.
He was the leader.
But that was the thing. He understood that the call of leadership wasn’t about him.
Answering the Call of Leadership
His position and rank weren’t given to him so that he would be more comfortable, take more perks, and enjoy more privileges.
He was entrusted with those things so that he could care for the people he was responsible for leading. To lead is to serve.
The Captain understood all this, and quickly made a decision. He knew how to answer the call of leadership.
He asked the operator to hold, looked at the young Airman, and said, “It’s for you.”
Every day we have the opportunity to make small but significant decisions like these.
Leaders are the ones that do.
Answer the call.