Lead with your Actions, not your Mouth


Imagine the following scenario.  A young man or woman turns 16 and decides it is time to get their driver’s license.  They have never driven a car.  Their neighbor owns a manual transmission vehicle, and they convince that neighbor to take them to the local DMV to take the driving test, in that car.  The birthday boy or girl waits in line, presents their paperwork, and attempts the driving test.

Given the above scenario, if I were to tell you that this person failed miserably, would you be surprised?  Of course not, they don’t know how to drive a car.  They have no experience, no practice, and are wholly unprepared.  If I asked for your thoughts on their approach to the test, most would say it was irresponsible, and the outcome predictable.

If you want to be successful in that environment, you find someone to teach you. You find someone with experience to sit in the car with you.  That person explains how a vehicle works, what the buttons and levers do, how to turn it on, etc.  You learn the basics in a controlled environment, generally a parking lot.  You pull from, and draft off of the experienced individual sitting next to you, until you develop some of your own.  After you have mastered the parking lot, you drive “simple” roads, progressing towards complicated situations on the freeway.  If you encounter a situation beyond your experience or skill, there is an individual riding shotgun, ready and able to help.  Only once you have achieved the requisite skill and experience are you allowed to take the driving test, and only once you demonstrate your ability to a third party are you granted a professional license to operate the vehicle on your own.

It is a logical, controlled approach to gaining experience, and I almost never see it applied to the most important professional license of them all, Leadership.

If I had to pick one word that describes the leadership style of the SEAL Teams, it would be mentorship.  We pair the most junior personnel with the most senior and experienced, and do our best to shepherd them through the phase where they are a danger to themselves, and those around them.  When I checked in to my first team and was assigned to an operational element, my first job was secondary communicator.  Essentially, I was responsible for my radio, which was merely a backup for the primary communicator.  Looking back, it was an incredibly simple job.  In that moment, it seemed like a daunting task. Through the help of others, practice, and time, I slowly became an asset to the team, not a liability.  I was not shot gunned with a test, I slowly prepared for it.  This is the approach that needs to be taken with leadership.

If you wait until you achieve a “leadership position,” be that a job title, acronym on a business card, or rank to start acting like a leader, don’t be surprised if you struggle and fail.  You will fail for the same reason the inexperienced driver is not able to pass the driving test, you don’t know what you are doing.  Just like in a vehicle, those around you will pay the price.  The failure will be your fault, not the situations you are presented with, and not the people that work for you.

There are leadership positions and there are leaders, don’t confuse the two.  Sometimes they coexist, often they do not.

The reality is that you may never achieve the leadership position you want.  The world is not fair, and it is possible that the stars may never align to provide you the opportunity.  If the opportunity does present itself, you need to seize it immediately.  You need to be prepared, and ready to strike.  The time to begin that preparation is now, today.

Leadership has nothing to do with title, rank, or position, and everything to do with how you conduct yourself.  You lead with your actions, not with your words.  Being a leader has nothing to do with being the smartest person in the room. The best leaders I had the privilege to serve with made no attempt to outsmart anyone.  Instead, they identified their weaknesses and staffed them with people who were more capable than themselves.  The worst leaders, and believe me, there are some terrible leaders in the SEAL Teams, refused to solicit and consider input because they were certain of their own genius, and were singularly concerned with “them,” not the people who worked for them, or the team.

Leadership is about pulling people up the ladder, not putting your feet on the heads of those below you to secure your position on a rung.  Don’t be that person.

If you don’t have the title you want yet, act like you do.  Lead by the example you set.  Prepare yourself for the future, or suffer the consequences when it arrives.

If there is a downside to setting the example, I am not aware of it.  Once you start thinking like a leader, you will realize that your actions have an impact on those around you.  You will also realize that everyone is watching, all the time.  It will cause you to consider your actions, in every situation, before making snap decisions.  It will cause you to consider your words, and choose them wisely.  It will cause you to become aware of your emotions, and their impact on your decision-making ability.  It will improve your character, and positively influence the world around you, something that I think we can all agree is desperately needed in this day and age.

It is simple, but far from easy.  I fail at it every day.  There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t look back and see room for improvement.  It may be an action I took, a decision I made, or the tone of voice I had when one of my children did something frustrating.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Leadership and the driving test are relatively simple, if you have the experience.  If you arrive at test day without it, don’t be surprised by the outcome.  No one can gift you the experience you need, it can only be earned over time, and no one is going to make you do it.

It’s on you.  Who do you want to see looking back in the mirror?


13 thoughts on “Lead with your Actions, not your Mouth

  1. Great article! Very similar experiences as a Flight Engineer, First Officer, and finally Captain with a major airline – another life-and-death business where you have to “keep it real” at all times. I remember the best Captains I flew with were the humble guys who not only were competent pilots themselves, but also enjoyed showing “junior” the ropes. The worst ones, as you said, were the ones who were arrogant, all about themselves, and knew everything. When I finally became a Captain, I hope I lived up to the example set by the good Captains I flew with when I was “junior.” I know sometimes I messed up, but I hope most of the time I did it right. When I was a Captain I had the good fortune to fly with some really good First Officers who were already good leaders themselves. In particular, I remember an Air Force Reserve, A-10 pilot with lots of combat experience who was my FO during a particularly nasty and challenging emergency situation. We were able to successfully deal with the situation without making headlines on the nightly news. His leadership abilities, his “followership” abilities, as well as, believe it or not, his humor during the episode, were essential to the successful outcome. Proving, I guess, that leadership is valuable wherever you find it. And don’t be surprised if you find it in your subordinates! Thanks for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Right on. You, Leif and Jocko have helped me implement this with all of my direct reports and theirs as well. It is a marathon. Two years in and have much more to do.


  3. I remember the first real leadership decision I made. It was January 2001 and I didn’t even recognize it for what it was at the time, but, as difficult a decision as it was, I made it because it was something that had to be done, something only I could do, to stop a ‘war’ from breaking out that would have engulfed my entire college student body. There are two things that stand out from that experience. The first one is a student coming to me with tears in her eyes asking “Why did you do it? Don’t you know we would have fought for you?” To which I replied “I know you would have. That’s why I did it. So you wouldn’t have to.” The second thing is that my decision, and my reasons for it, brought me to the attention of the most respected-and most feared-man on campus who chose to become my mentor. And mentor is such an inadequate word for what he did for me. He taught me the principles he lived by, held me to his standards-which most people would consider too high to meet, and required the exact same things from me-in all aspects of my life-that he required from himself. In short, he taught me to be just like him in all the ways that really mattered. The two and a half year period I had with him was both the hardest and the best time of my life. I was the envy of most of the students, staff and faculty on the campus. He didn’t fight my battles, instead he gave me advice on how to fight them and then had my back while I did. The one time he couldn’t have my back the way he wanted to, he warned me, gave me the best advice I have ever received, carefully wrapped it all up in a lesson on the extremely rare and limited circumstances when it is appropriate to use that advice, and did it all in only eight words: “Do what you gotta do. Just…be careful.” Every success I have had as a leader has been due to what he taught me. Every failure has been mine alone.

    When someone asks me about leadership, I usually tell them something like this:
    Bearing. Courage. Consistency. Decisiveness. Dependability. Endurance. Enthusiasm. Initiative. Integrity. Judgment. Justice. Knowledge. Leads by Example. Loyalty. Selflessness. Tact. These are the Traits of a Leader. When they stop being words and become the principles you live by-a part of who you are-you become a leader. Not because you have power or authority but because people will choose to follow you. And they will choose to follow you because they know you will always put their interests ahead of yours. They know you will never ask them for anything that you are not ready and willing to do or give yourself. They know that if there are two jobs to do you will always take the dirtiest, nastiest, hardest, most dangerous one…unless they can get to it first. They know that if you make them a promise you will keep it no matter who you have to tick off to do it. They know that if anyone wants to unfairly accuse or attack them, that person will have to go through you to do it. And when they know these things you will see them exceed even their own expectations…not because they think they can, but because they know you do. They will do things for you that they would refuse to do for anyone else…not because you ask them to, but because you don’t. You will see them stand, terrified, shaking, holding on to each other for support, wanting to run, but refusing to simply because they see you aren’t running and they think you might need their help. And when you see that you start to realize that leadership isn’t about power or authority or rank or giving orders-although a lot of people seem to think it is. Instead it’s about the immense responsibility you have towards people who would rather risk dying than to risk letting you down. And that is something that is very, very humbling.


  4. Nice article, hard to argue or even want to argue the points made. I like the point abouty leading by example, atruly hard one for most, myself included. Nice work, good thoughts.


  5. Although this is my first time replying, I read every single one of your entries. Your writings are inspiring and thought provoking, at least for me anyway. I sincerely appreciate everything you have to say and very much look forward to your next post. Thanks for taking the time out of your day to share your thoughts, opinions, and experiences with all of us in Internerland. It’s truly helpful.


  6. Pingback: Change | The Project: Me by Judy

  7. Great thoughts – as usual. My motto has always been to “make yourself replaceable.” Through mentorship/coaching you not only empower your peers, but you grow as a leader. Leadership is learned and practiced, not a given quality from birth.

    Thanks for sharing your views – it helps give me perspective.


  8. Great article, Andy. It’s the first time I came across your blog, and I’m sure going to follow along!

    In my opinion there is one downside to be a leader as you describe. If you’re paid and seen as a subordinate, and you act as a mentor in any way possible to your peers as well as superiors, you might end up with a lot of responsibility – way more than you’re expected, paid and trained to handle. That’s not entirely a bad thing – that’s the way to go, if you want to lead from the front, be inspirational to others and to fulfill your mission and passion. But it can be challenging as well. The downside to leading from the front might well be that that sort of leadership is seldomly appreciated for a long time. But stick in it and people will surely see your contribution to the cause.

    Thank you for a great article!


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