“We lead men into harm’s way. We lead, they follow, and where we’re taking them is potentially to their death.”

I’ll never forget those straightforward, weighty words spoken to me many years ago by my late friend and mentor, Brigadier General John Hirt.

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John and I were lying on our backs in sleeping bags in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. The Milky Way was more luminous above our heads than I had ever seen it. We were talking about his years of military service and what leadership looks like in times of war. The gravity of that conversation opened a hollow place in my chest, and some questions have lived there ever since.

“What kind of a leader will people follow toward harm? What leadership qualities will cause men and women to run into the teeth of danger, rather than shoot the leader in the back and flee (which, we all know happens)?

General Hirt’s answers to these questions were simple to understand, yet challenging to live. In memorial tribute to John’s memory, and to my living veteran and active service friends, Bruce Bickel, Ken Jennings, David Jennings, and others, here are his answers.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they know that the leader loves them.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they trust that leader, trust his character, his courage, and his capability.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if that leader leads them; if he both goes first and goes alongside them.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they know that the leader won’t abandon them when times get difficult.

Thinking about leadership during the Memorial Day holiday blows a lot of smoke out of the room. Leadership is, first of all, leading. It is going first. Following requires a person to accept the initiatives of the leader. Giving commands is a part of leadership, but it isn’t the biggest part.

Second, leadership is proving you are trustworthy. It is having command of the task, exercising the courage the situation demands, and doing what you say. The leader who is followed is the leader who loves his followers, and has earned their respect and trust.

The greatest Memorial Day tribute I can think of is for us to pledge to grow in our leadership, to become more like the men and women we are memorializing. Love your followers! Earn their trust! Go where you ask them to go! Never break faith with them!

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My thanks to the servicemen and servicewomen of this country who have committed themselves to a life of sacrificial service. And, thank you, dear friend, Dr. John B. Hirt, for your personal dedication and service to the mentorship of me!


John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at www.centerforservingleadership.com.

Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Wayne White, right, points out strike areas to a soldier from the 19th Special Forces Group during Exercise Eagle Eye at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, N.J., Feb. 18, 2016. Air and Army National Guard units teamed up for the joint training exercise which featured a variety of air assets. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Released)