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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

What soldiers do

In response to this week's On Leadership question: Once again this past weekend, a terrorist attack on an airplane was foiled by a quick- thinking passenger. What qualities distinguish those "ordinary" people who, in a crisis, take such a leadership role? Can that instinct be taught or is it simply part of a person's makeup?

We expect members of the Armed Services to act in times of crisis and place themselves at risk based on their training, commitment to mission and commitment to each other. This requires individual and collective action. We continue to look with awe and appreciation at the words inscribed on the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

With the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, valor is demonstrated and witnessed daily in the most austere and dangerous conditions. Thus far, nearly 600 Silver Stars, Distinguished Service and Distinguished Flying Crosses, and five Medals of Honor have been awarded to U.S. service members. It may be easy to overlook the over 100 Soldier's Medals awarded for risking one's life to save another's in non-combat operations.

At the start of a new year, we justly reflect in admiration on the actions of Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch passenger who sprang into action on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009. His deed got the attention of flight attendants who extinguished the flames. This brings to mind another group that took action on September 11, 2001 aboard United Flight 93.

Lisa Beamer provides that account in "Let's Roll! Ordinary people, extraordinary courage." Rather than acting alone out of sheer instinct, passengers came together under dire circumstances. In Chapter 20, "A team united...in life and death", we read of Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett and Todd Beamer who assumed leadership roles. Tom on the phone told his wife, Deena, "We can't wait...we're going to do something." Voice recordings captured the memorable words of Lisa's husband, Todd, who was about to lead the group: "Are you ready? Okay. Let's roll!"

That's what leaders do. They see something that needs to be done beyond their self interest. They gather energy of others to focus on a common purpose. And, they act with the group to do what is necessary and important.

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  December 31, 2009; 7:03 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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