Set the Example: Wisdom on a Wall in Afghanistan

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Although I had already been a commissioned U.S. Navy officer for more than 11 years at the time, the message hit me anew every time I read it. 

The message—stenciled in black letters upon a white sign and affixed to one of the many blast-resistant walls that encircled Camp Eggers in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan—greeted us just inside one of the vehicle entrances to the small, crowded base.

It simply read as follows: 

"The duty to set the example for others to follow by executing orders and enforcing standards falls to the greatest degree on the most respected and qualified members of our profession its leaders."

In the military, setting the example—number five of 11 in the list of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles—isn’t just a suggestion. It’s an obligation. It’s a duty that defines at its core what leadership is and what leadership is not. 

This means that if you aren’t setting the example or if you’re asking people to adhere to standards that you don’t meet yourself, you’re failing as a leader.  

A big part of this is what’s called “behavioral integrity.” Simply put, that’s the degree to which a person acts in a way that aligns with their stated values. It’s doing what you say, walking your talk. 

And the outcomes of setting the example or acting in a way that aligns with what you say are all clearly beneficial regarding leadership. It’s one of the critical foundations of being credible and trustworthy. It’s one of those key components that makes people want to follow you. 

Setting the example is also one of those aspects of leadership that’s just as much about perspiration as it is about inspiration. 

You must be willing to follow through on your actions. You must be willing to provide feedback quickly when you see behavior that’s out of line. 

So I think it’s important for all of us leaders to take an honest look at ourselves and ask ourselves:

  • Am I truly acting in a way that aligns with what I say?
  • Do I hold myself to the same standards to which I hold others?
  • Do I ask other people to do things that I wouldn’t do myself?

I think if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’d find that we can always improve in these areas. And if we do, I’m convinced that our organizations will benefit as a result. 

Because our organizations become what we walk past. 

We become what we tolerate. 

This post is one in a series that I’m doing on all 11 of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Here are all 11 of those principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement (read more)
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)
  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)
  4. Keep your people informed (read more
  5. Set the example
  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished
  7. Train your unit as a team
  8. Make sound and timely decisions
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.