Saturday, July 15, 2017

Honorable Leadership

The water was on fire. A Japanese "zero" had just struck the ship, water was flowing over the railings, and above the roar of the explosion he could hear the screams of men in the water. He did not hesitate. Later he would recall figuring that the burning fuel was probably only on the surface of the water. So he dove into the flaming South Pacific. One-by-one he hauled the injured men back onto the boat. He would not remember how many he saved.

When we think of honor, often what comes to mind are great leaders like this man, my father Burton Barnett, who would later be decorated with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service as a radio operator with the Amphibious Corps - a unit within the US Army that was deployed alongside the Marines as they landed on islands during World War II.

But this image neglects a more common, if mundane, form of honor. I refer to those who show leadership every day by living up to the duty implied by their office: the school principal helping one of his teachers with a difficult student; the general manager of a cement plant fulfilling a promise made years before to residents near the factory; the scientist supporting one of her postdocs whose experiments just failed. Honorable leadership includes these seemingly small moments too. By living up to our duty during such moments, we make real our promises and show that a person's word has meaning.

Seen this way, my father's greatest leadership challenge may have come years after the war, and involved honorable actions that would never be acknowledged with a medal. As a supervisor with what we then called "the phone company," he was ordered to lay off dozens of workers during the computerization of the American phone system. The cuts hit hard and fast, with thousands laid off systemwide - most with little warning, just a pink slip appearing one day at work. But not for my father's workers. He met with them individually, looked each one in the eye, and explained as best he could why the layoff was happening and how he and the company would try to help them through the job loss. Returning home each day he was quiet and subdued - not his normal upbeat self. Living up to one's duty can be difficult.

It seems we cringe every day when reading the news, learning of yet another example of juvenile behavior by so-called leaders who do not deserve the title of their office. These pretenders disrespect their workers, commit crimes, and act in self-interest in violation of their duty. They wrongly think that leadership bestows entitlement. To the contrary, leadership implies duty, and honorable leadership occurs only when we live up to that duty. Thankfully, we still have the many quiet heroes of everyday life - those who understand the calling of honorable leadership, quietly living up to their duty each day.


Sociologist Philip Selznick developed the idea of "institutional leadership" connected to creating and exemplifying the values of an organization in his seminal book Leadership in Administration.