How not to lead



I don’t care what anyone says. There is no such thing as a “natural born leader.” Leaders are made. Leadership is taught in the school of hard knocks.

Allow me to illustrate.

As a young Ensign fresh out of Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS), my brain was stuffed full of theory, diagrams, and rules. I was raring to get on with it.

One of the theories pounded into our heads was to rely on the Chief. He would train me and keep the division running smoothly.

Except we didn’t have one.

So I did what junior officers have done since the beginning days of our Navy. I made about a million mistakes, all by myself.

One of them had to do with football.

The ship had a flag football team, and the games were a good way to burn off some steam and get some exercise. Most of the players were enlisted Sailors, and in the huddle they always called me, “Mr. Bacon.”

“Mr. Bacon, you go long. Mr. Bacon, you block.”

Confident in my weeks of experience as a Naval Officer, I told them, “Hey, on the field, call me Jeff.” And they did. Somewhere in my fading memories of SWOS was the stern warning to maintain your rank. The Chain of Command exists for a reason.

What a bunch of hooey. I could handle it. Besides, I didn’t want them to think I was a jerk.

From then on, while we were on the gridiron, we were all one team. No ranks, no wardroom – just a group of buddies playing football. On the ship, we put the uniforms back on, and order was restored.

Until one day on board the ship, as I bent over the drinking fountain, one of the players leaned over and quietly said, “Hi, Jeff.” I froze there, the stream of water quietly splashing off my chin. The familiarity of the playing field had leaked aboard.

I was at a Terminator moment.

I could see the future. More and more Sailors would call me by my first name. Instead of “being tough but fair”, I would just be “that jerk Jeff”. Unpopular decisions would be taken personally. The Captain would eventually find out, I would be counseled and maybe even brought up on charges of fraternization. Then one day machines would rule the world and try to wipe out the human race.

I had to do something. I had to go back in time and make things right.

Swallowing my hubris like a half-chewed piece of steak, I announced to the team that forever more I must be referred to as, “Mr. Bacon.”

I could see it in their eyes. They thought I was a jerk.

So don’t tell me leadership comes naturally. It has to be learned. It has to be shoved down your throat. You have to be hit between the eyes with the sledge hammer of experience every once in awhile before it starts to sink in.

And one day, after the pain subsides, after the humiliation has faded and the scars have healed, you will finally have earned the title of natural born leader.


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