Who Carries the Flag?

This month was “watch a war movie month” for me. I watched again powerful movies of bravery like Glory, Gettysburg, The Patriot, The Big Red One, and Patton. They featured great scenes of courage and dedication to mission. One feature was the power of the flag. When the flag carrier was killed, someone else always picked it up and carried it.

Flags are to battles what brands and missions are to companies. They symbolize an aspiration; they surface deep pride; and, they instill an abiding commitment to a dream. Flags, whether the kind that unfurls or the type that hangs on the walls of board rooms and break rooms, convey the identity of the organization, country or brigade. Great leaders take care of the “flag.”  And, they use the “flag” as a potent symbol to remind associates of what they can become, not just what they do.

A new principal took over the leadership of an elementary school that had mediocre scores on the year-end achievement tests. Her mission was clear: create an environment of excellence in which students performed better. The new principal’s predecessor shared with the new principal little about the staff or the barriers to greatness but offered strong advice: “Take real good care of my precious teachers.” The faculty meeting on the first day of school painted the picture clearly. As most teachers entered the school library for the meeting, their first words were: “Where are our donuts? We ALWAYS get big donuts!”

Leaders are not surrogate parents. Their job is to encourage merit, inspire innovation and provide encouragement…not big donuts. “Carrying the flag” is a leader’s preeminent responsibility. It means having a solid sense of where you hope to go…a “picture in your head” of what it will be like to reach the aim. And, it means being unwavering in that headlong and noble pursuit.

Stew Leonard’s Dairy is one of the country’s most famous grocery stores. Located in several cities in Connecticut, it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest sales per square foot of any grocery in the world. Shortly after Stew, Sr. passed day-to-day leadership to Stew Leonard, Jr. renowned Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter was invited to lead a strategic planning meeting. Since it was Junior’s first planning session as CEO, Stew, Sr. decided not to attend.  Just as the meeting was about to begin, Stew, Sr. called to the meeting room to report that a customer had complained the grapes tasted flat. “Oh, Dad,” exclaimed Stew, Jr. “I am so glad you called. Dr. Porter is here to start our strategic planning meeting. Let me put you on the speakerphone so you can give us all your input on your vision of the company.” There was a long silence on the speakerphone. Then Stew, Sr. spoke a single sentence that said it all: “A customer complained that the grapes tasted flat.”

Paraphrasing a quote found on the wall of an old church in Italy, “Vision without action is daydreaming. But, action without vision is random activity.” Flag-carrying leaders spend time conceptualizing the vision, communicating that vision, and acting in ways that both reflect and reinforce that vision. When theme park builders suggested to Walt Disney that he take a more cost-effective route and build the Sleeping Beauty castle last, he balked. “The Sleeping Beauty castle is the centerpiece and symbol of what Disneyland is all about.  It must be built first.”

“Like desperadoes waiting for a train” is a song made famous by the Highwaymen, a singing group made up of country music giants Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the late Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. It perfectly captures the sense of eagerness flag-carrying leaders help create. Watch such leaders in action and there is always a sense of anticipation, like something special is just around the corner. More importantly, they fan the flame of impatience and expectancy by their low tolerance for anything that creates temperance, moderation or restraint.

It is not that these leaders are shoot-from-the-hip, impulsive types. Their decisions are grounded in substance and bordered by solid information. It is more a restless recognition that being in the moment is required for greatness. They speak about the journey ahead with obvious excitement. They evaluate input filtered through an interest in tomorrow, not an anchor to yesterday. And, they show more fascination with what they can be than anxiety with what they are.

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