On Duty: The Meaning of Leadership in a Risk-Filled World

She is a jet pilot, Ph.D., federal agent, and Amazon best-selling author.  And she is a leader.

L.B. Johnson assumed her duties as a law enforcement agent at about the same time the Twin Towers were falling in New York.  In a world often dominated by the male of the species, she was not just on the team; she was in charge.  She still is.

I asked her if she would be willing to share her perspective on what it means to be a leader and she was quick to say yes.

Embedded in the rich prose she shared, I think you will find something captivating, deeply considered, and very revealing about the true duties of a leader in a risk-filled world, regardless of your gender.

On Duty - Leadership in a Risk-Filled World

Introducing L.B. Johnson:

I do not write about my work in social media, being employed by what is commonly referred to as “an alphabet group” and won’t on retirement, but each year, I will speak briefly of aspects of it.  For 9-11 was a day that remains in my mind for more reasons than just the obvious ones.  But I have been the team lead  or manager of my group for many years, and the only female ever in that position.  Sure I bring home-made cookies to work sometimes to share, but other than that, I’m like any leader, of any gender, wanting to bring out the best in my people, while keeping them safe.

My life is actually pretty mundane 90% of the time.  As an author, I  try and write a little each day, usually very early in the morning when most people are still asleep.  But sometimes in those early hours, before duty calls, I just prefer to read.

On Duty - Leadership in a Risk-Filled World

The last book read, re-read actually, was “Safe Return Doubtful – The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration” by John Maxtone-Graham. Until the early 20th century, both the North and South poles remained alluring unknowns shrouded in a biting cold mystery that demanded resolution. Only a century ago, intrepid men dreamed of conquering the planet’s last continent with tools unfit for purpose. For those men, heroism alone sufficed.

Being a leader is never easy. I lead a group of people, pretty much all male including my administration assistant.  All but one are ex-military, a few ex-special forces. I’m the lone female and the one they look to for direction. I make the final decision, and it’s my job to keep them both engaged and safe. It’s not always easy. It takes patience, and humor and knowing what battles are worth fighting for.  I also lead, as tough as one of them, but not trying to act like a man.  I wear my hair up, and I wear no makeup to work but for tinted sunscreen, but if you get real close, my neck may smell of vanilla or lavender or lily of the valley, old fashioned, clean scents. I don’t swear, unless absolutely necessary. I bring home baked goods every few weeks. But they’ve seen me in the field, and in the courtroom, and I know I’ve earned their respect, for if not, we’d not be the group that we are, together.

People, I have found, are vastly complex, with many facets that never show until they are placed in a certain light. We all place such a value on nothing more than face value, quick assumptions of a person’s character, by what little snippets they show of themselves. But you really have to spend time with a person, face conflict or danger next to them, to see what they are made of. You can’t rely on what you hear, certainly in politics, so much of the media spinning its own version of the truth. It’s easy to get caught up with such situations, making a judgment based on what’s in the news, what’s in social media. If I’ve learned anything, in any situation involving people it’s best to step back and reserve judgment, for that which you see for yourself with your own eyes. Anything else is as fragile as glass and elusive as smoke.

When it comes to people, it's best to reserve judgement. L.B. Johnson Click To Tweet

On Duty - Leadership in a Risk-Filled World

So in reading this book, about leadership and courage pushed to the limits in the worst of conditions, those things that leave their mark, that haunt the edges of our almost understanding, I thought hard about coping with such adventures. I’ve been there, but not even close to this level on my worst of days.

The author really does a fine job in exploring the fraternity that experienced not only heartbreaking defeat, but even death, those that have gone to the absolute edge of no return, and had the choice to either continue, to find the land they sought, or hurtle over the world’s roaring limit. It was a land of little mercy. Salomon Andree and his Arctic balloon vanished, Ernest Shackleton called it quits only ninety-seven miles from the elusive south pole, and his countryman Captain Robert F. Scott succeeded, only to cruelly perish returning to base.

Yet, with his death pending, Captain Scott wrote these words. “We are weak, writing is difficult but for my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every man, these rough notes, and our dead bodies must tell the tale. . . ”

Articulate grace in the face of death. Courage to even begin the journey. Such are what drives the courageous, the visionaries. Those that earn their names know what risk is, and they elect to it anyway. They pursue, without ambivalence, one bright shining goal, be it the exploration of a new land, or promotion of an ideal that should be heard. Walking headlong into the swirling mist of the unknown, they serve a hidden flame and sacrifice what is theirs for what is good. Such is courage.

Leaders sacrifice what is theirs for what is good. L.B. Johnson Click To Tweet

When Captain Robert Scott’s returning Arctic party was down to three surviving men, they were hit by a final blizzard, a ceaseless, battling roar of a storm that made further travel impossible. Almost out of food, water and heat, they hunkered down in hopes of an impossible rescue. When there was no heat left, only some mentholated spirits, Captain Scott devised a makeshift lamp with a small piece of lamp wick, so that in the dim light he could continue to write. There was no food left or water, and he was holding on for the sake of his men. He made one final entry and tucked his diary into a small green canvas pouch, and gently nestled it underneath his head as he lay down to sleep that long dark sleep of yesterday’s omission and regrets, the tent answering only to the howling wind.

His last scribed words – “Final Entry. For God’s sake, look after our people.”

I guess I’m thinking about such things because something I read today brought back a memory of 9/11. I have too vivid memories of that day, of my brother who was supposed to be at the Pentagon, at my badge, still shiny because I’d just graduated from the Academy, as I was thrown feet first into the field and into the fire.

We are but one act of nature, one mistake of man, from being in a place echoed in the brave words of Captain  Scott.  A place where, by some failure of eye or hand, the ranting of a terrorist state, the involuntary flick of the atmosphere, or simply geography, we are faced with death. There by fate or human action as remote to indictment as judgment, suddenly too close and too late, you are there. Rushing towards that final crescendo, hoping that fate and momentum won’t spew you out the other side before you have one last chance to turn the wheel to get your ship and crew to safety.

All I ask is that when I die, I still believe strongly in what I can not help but believe and what I can not help but be.

I have people who rely on me, for whose well-being I am bound to protect. I would only hope, that if ever faced with that sort of situation, be it tomorrow or years from now, that I could show such strength. That I could stand stalwart in the hopes that they might live, inextricable from the scattered remains of courage that blow through the infinite passages we seek.

If we’re lucky, there might be cookies.

L.B. Johnson

About the Author

L.B. Johnson has worn many hats – wife, mother, jet pilot, Ph.D., federal agent, and now Amazon best-selling author.  She lives in Chicago with her engineer husband and rescue black lab.  For more about her and her award-winning books, check out her author blog, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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