Small actions can have big impacts
A man stepped out of the shadows, extended his hand to me, and with a brief whisper, taught me more about leadership than any best-selling book ever could. Here’s what happened, and how his example can make better leaders of us all.
Long Walk Home
For a few years I was stationed with a unit of paratroopers in Panama. Our commander at the time was a hard-charging professional who ardently believed in the mantra that “a pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” Under his leadership, we did a lot of good, honest sweating.
This incident came at the end of a week-long sweat-filled training exercise in the jungle. As paratroopers, once you jump out of the plane, your transportation options quickly narrow down to one: your feet.
Being able to cover ground on foot is a critical skill. So after several tiring days of maneuvers, one task remained: an 18 mile walk back to the barracks.
We would start after dark and march through the night.
Through the Long Dark Tunnel
I can’t say we were looking forward to making the march, but since it was the last thing between us and home, it would be true to say we were looking forward to getting it over with. Long after sunset, we hefted our heavy rucksacks, fell into line, and began to march.
The rhythm was one we were familiar with: walk 50 minutes, stop, drink water, check feet and adjust gear. Ten minutes later, start again. It was around midnight that the rain began to fall – one of those long, soaking rains. Soon the cool water from the sky mingled with the hot saline sweat that soaked our uniforms.
We trudged through the mud, our tired feet in sodden socks squishing rhythmically through the mire in caked boots. Most of that march is a blur in my memory, there’s not much to see in the long black tunnel of a moonless night.
But one moment stands out like a flash of heat lightning in the summer sky.
A Shadowy Figure
Late in the march, the route pitched steadily down and we came to a stream crossing. There was no need for trying to hop from rock to rock to cross. Our feet were already wet. Most Soldiers simply walked straight through the water.
Nearing the stream, I could see the silhouette of a Soldier off to the side, he hefted a heavy rucksack like everybody else, but he was just standing by the water. As each Soldier came to the stream, he reached out his hand to them.
When it was my turn to cross, the Soldier stepped up, whispered a word or two of encouragement, and then put a Jolly Rancher candy in my hand. That’s when I realized who the Soldier was: It was Chaplain Tom.
Not What You’d Expect
A unit’s chaplain looks out for the morale and spiritual well-being of its members, regardless of faith. Our Chaplain was one of the best.
He was a graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School, one of the most difficult leadership schools the Army has to offer. The screening process to even be accepted into the course is rigorous and highly selective. Yet even then, successful graduation rate is less than 50%.
Most who successfully complete the course come from the combat arms, like the Infantry. A Ranger-qualified Chaplain is an absolute rarity. But we had one in Chaplain Tom, and it was clear he knew a thing or two about leadership.
As the chaplain, Tom had a lot of latitude. It would have been very easy for him to just march anonymously along with the headquarters element, quietly sucking it up like everyone else.
But that’s not how he operated.
It’s Not About the Parade
We knew: The longer the march, the darker the night, or the harder the rain, the more likely it was that he was going to appear out of the blackness to bring a little light into our lives with a positive word or a pat on the back.
A single Jolly Rancher did not mark the difference between success or failure on the march that long night. It didn’t keep our feet dry, relieve the blisters, or lessen the weight on our backs. We still had to do the work. And yet, our steps were somehow lighter as we walked wearily on through the mud and the dark.
Someone once said that leadership was a matter of finding a parade and getting in front of it. I disagree. Parades are for show – spit-shine and glistening chrome spectacles carried out in the daylight to impress an audience. That’s not where leadership happens.
Jolly Rancher Leadership – The Takeaway
To me, a big piece of leadership is figuring out where the night is darkest, the muddy march is longest, the struggle the greatest, and being there to help our teammates through it.
And I’m not saying that the leadership solution is to simply hand out candy. That’s just what Chaplain Tom was able to do in the moment.
When our teammates are struggling, we support them with resources, work to reduce obstacles, and provide encouragement. The audience that matters here is the team.
We don’t even have to be in a formal leadership position, as Chaplain Tom demonstrated. But if we are in charge, all the more reason.
And when we do that, you can bet people will remember. In detail.
I forget what training missions we accomplished that week more than 26 years ago. But I definitely remember what Chaplain Tom did one inky black, tired night in the rain, and it brings a smile to my face. He did what leaders do.
Oh, and that Jolly Rancher he gave me?