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Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Todd Henshaw, a professor at Columbia University, is Academic Director of Wharton Executive Education. Previously, he directed the leadership program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Culture Teaches Sacrifice

One heroic act does not a leader make! I'd like to know more about the history of the relationship between captain and crew prior to passing judgment here.

I have visions of George Patton riding on a lead tank in central Europe, or Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (see below) leading soldiers across Utah Beach at Normandy on his way to a Congressional Medal of Honor. Without the front-line leadership of these two generals, many operations, even the war, may have changed course or at least taken more lives.

Especially in crisis situations, it is reassuring to see a leader sacrifice for his followers, to put self at "the point of the spear" rather than the other way around. I would ask what behavior we would have witnessed from many of the Wall Street "leaders" we have been discussing in this same situation. In some cases, CEOs might have cut a deal to scuttle the ship for a share of the loot!

In the case of Captain Phillips, he symbolically communicated that his crew and ship were primary, not his own self-interest. This has become all too rare in the business world, yet is still woven into the culture of the military and paramilitary organizations. Leaders eat last, they shouldn't be willing to ask that which they would not do themselves. Rather than RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges), their value is reflected in RHIR (Rank Has Its Responsibilities), and first among them is the welfare of your people.

I believe that most ship captains, police chiefs, platoon leaders, and potentially business leaders of a prior generation (and some today), would take the same action to secure the ship and the crew. These priorities are firmly embedded in the culture of these organizations, and young leaders grow up having these values inculcated each day, each drill, each exercise. I'm afraid that in the business world, all too often leadership is seen as an avenue to wealth and power, rather than a way to build capacity in an organization and its people.

The only case where this behavior might be less effective is when the captain is irreplaceable, or conditions exists that would require the captain's experience or judgment in the immediate future to protect the ship and crew. If the captain trained his crew properly to operate effectively in his absence, as all good leaders do with their top teams, the captain has the situational flexibility to be heroic.

From Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.'s Medal of Honor Citation:

After 2 verbal requests to accompany the leading assault elements in the Normandy invasion had been denied, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt's written request for this mission was approved and he landed with the first wave of the forces assaulting the enemy-held beaches...Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.

By Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

 |  April 13, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
Category:  Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I would agree that there are many who do not understand the fundamental principle of responsibility rather than entitlement in leadership. Perhaps it relates to the lack of significant adversity present in our American experience. Certainly there is adversity, in many cases a person has to seek it out, to your point about military and paramilitary organizations understanding the role of responsibility in leadership. Generations raised in the world wars or depression knew about delayed gratification and investing in the future. This concept seems to be lost with the younger generations. Yes they experienced 9/11 and the current recession. But it is early to say how these events will play on their pysche in future.

Enjoyed your post and particularly like your comment about how the bankers would have cut a deal with the pirates.
Ron Hurst

Posted by: ronnhurst | April 22, 2009 12:03 PM
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One might add that Roosevelt had terminal heart disease yet insisted on that combat role; he died less than a week later.

Posted by: HCBerkowitz | April 14, 2009 5:11 PM
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