Who Can Teach You How to Lead: Lessons from Life’s “Old Soldiers”

Biography: a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified.
Jose Ortega Y Gasset, Spanish Philosopher

Leaders are constantly watched by their followers, to see how they respond and interact. Especially when it comes to making decisions, dealing with a crisis, or navigating challenging relationships. We want to learn from their experience, at work and in life, as “old soldiers,” of battles won and lost along their journey. As followers we’re also interested in how those in charge got to where they are, as well as what they represent in their values and stance, looking to glean lessons, so that we too can lead effectively.

In my youth, I was always observing the adults in my family, particularly taking note of how they dealt with our economic and societal conditions, since we were poor, black, rural, and struggling. I learned a lot from these “old soldiers” in my life, as they found a way to keep going, in spite of.  Starting with my mother, a determined, no-excuse making single parent of four, who worked as a domestic and later a factory worker. We lived in the austere home of my wise grandparents, with no indoor plumbing. Much about our lives was not easy and all did not always go well.

Nevertheless, I saw a lot of leadership in the resourcefulness, perseverance, organization, humor, and guidance they exhibited. Everyone worked very hard to raise children and instill hope and values for better times. In addition to my mother and grandparents, I also anxiously awaited visits from my favorite uncle, jokingly known as Hardcore, who was away in the army, but still found a way to impact my life as his oldest niece, with his dedication, toughness and wisdom.  Later I found myself in the army and focused on being hardcore too!

I simply cannot reiterate enough how strong of an impact these experiences had on me. For one thing, my mother, a smart leader of tremendous strength, focused on providing the best for her children. I was born when she was a senior in high school, but she went back to finish, which was no easy feat for a young, poor mother in 1955. That spoke loudly of her grit, as well as my grandparents’ support. She taught me to read and write before I entered first grade since there was no kindergarten in our county school system. As the oldest child, she raised me to be responsible and accountable, charting my leadership stance. I’m clear on the attributes of my mother that reside in me. Her message cemented well, because it was evident to me that education was extremely important to her. It was her influence, in part, that allowed me to do well in school and go on to college.

The wisdom of my maternal grandparents, even though one had a third-grade education, and the other only went as far as fourth grade, gave them an amazing way of capturing what life had taught them in the midst of hardships. Being raised in the house with them, no matter our structural home plight and the unpleasantries we experienced, was a blessing that I’ll never forget!

My uncle did extremely well in his military career, rising to senior noncommissioned officer ranks in high echelons of the army structure. After retirement, he returned to our home town of  Waverly, Virginia, bringing his leadership skills to various local government boards and positions. He also helped the family financially and tangibly.

So, for my mother, grandparents, and favorite uncle, the reconciling of their biographies from the beyond is clear. None of them were perfect, and neither are any of us, but I can select from their dash, the richness of taking on their earthly sojourn with a lasting imprint, of leading anyhow.

So I’ve discovered that up-close, effective, progressive models of leadership are needed, and we don’t need to look too hard or wide to find them. Oftentimes, the solid purveyors are right in our homes, gatherings, and organizations.

Think about your first role models of leadership: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, pastors, or ministers. Can we know and acknowledge these “old soldiers” of life for the role they play in our communities and lives?

For many of us, the courage, fortitude, leadership, and general managerial abilities that we see in our ancestral family history are part of a ripe and enduring legacy. Many have led and labored in the quest for more, for better, all while maintaining their homes, their places of worship, and their communities as well as possible. They secured their sanity in spite of the insaneness of the world around them. They handled multiple priorities effectively; while thrown into challenging situations, they led a charge.

And what’s happening today? Some of the same predicaments are present.

So whose biography keeps you functioning and adding value to your personal and organizational battlefields? Jump off with their narratives of victory…or your own.


Excerpted from my book, Hardcore Leadership: 11 Master Lessons from My Airborne Ranger Uncle’s “Final Jump”   http://www.amazon.com/dp/1479324760


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