I had one of my most profound, memorable, touching experiences in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago that I’ve realized after reflection has some important connections to leadership.
President George Herbert Walker Bush, naval aviator, Congressman, Ambassador to China, Director of the CIA, Vice-President, and eventually 41st President of the United States passed away a couple of weeks ago. Immediately, Washington D.C. mourned the loss of our former leader. The flags have been at half mast ever since and will continue to be so for 30 days following a President’s death.
A good friend and Sigma Chi pledge brother of mine suggested we go visit President Bush lying in state, pay our respects, and express our gratitude for his long life of service and leadership, the subject of this post. We spread our plan to the whole fraternity and about 8 brothers signed on to come. We decided it would only be appropriate if we wore formal attire. Some brothers were coming from class or studying so they couldn’t, but we put on jackets, ties, and slacks and piled into an uber XL for the Capitol Building.
My buddy had some inside information that the line “wasn’t very long last night” and “if we went late, we’d be in there in no time,” which turned out to be completely false. I took the bait and left my heavy jacket at home and when we saw the half-mile long line stretching down 2nd street from the Capitol Building past the Library of Congress, we knew we had made a mistake. However, it was incredible to see thousands of grateful citizens make the journey to the Capitol Building and wait in the cold to see their President one last time lying in state.
We waited there together in the cold for four hours, taking turns cracking jokes and playing music on our phones. We sent a delegation to the McDonalds across the street which warmed our spirits immensely in the mid 30s weather. Thankfully, the wind stayed down and at 4:15 in the morning, we enter the US Capitol Visitor Center and passed through security.
Capitol police and employees were everywhere and you could tell they had been working long shifts. They were just as tired as we were, but you could tell this was important to them. They were grateful to be there, working to help as many as possible pay their respects.
We waited in another line inside for a few minutes and then ascended the escalator to the Capitol Rotunda, the circular room directly below the dome with statues of former Presidents and notable citizens. The scene was breathtaking and the complete opposite of my last visit to the Capitol Rotunda. Last time, it was loud with multiple tours going on and kids running all over the place. This time, the room was completely silent, you certainly could have heard a pin drop. We circled around to the Southwest side of the room and took in the scene.
President Bush’s casket, draped in an American flag, lay on a pedestal in the center of the room, the same pedestal upon which President Abraham Lincoln lay in state 153 years ago. 5 Us servicemen stood guard around the casket, one from each service in the United States military. All of them were dressed impeccably in dress uniform with neatly pressed coats and shiny boots. The US Marine stood directly opposite me in the Northeast corner, Air Force in the Southeast, Coast Guard in the Southwest in front of me, Army in the Northwest, and Navy to the West. They each held rifles at attention except for the Navy serviceman who stood with his arms folded behind his back. I imagine it was very special for them to be there standing guard over their former President, especially the Navy serviceman since President Bush flew in the Navy in World War II.
Surrounding the casket were 3 beautiful wreaths mounted on easels. The first one on my right was from the US House of Representatives which resides in the south end of the Capitol behind me and the wreath across from me represented the US Senate which resides in the north end across the room. The third wreath was mounted on the east side of the casket and it represented the US Supreme Court which sits to the east of the Capitol Building across 2nd street where we waited.
As you can see, the room was full of symbolism, each branch of American society was present. All 5 services of the military, all 3 branches of government, and the grateful citizens these leaders serve.
When I say each branch of American society was represented, I also mean that each branch of the American citizenry was represented. People from all walks of life lined the red ropes surrounding the red ropes that held us back. Democrats and Republicans, people of all races and faiths resided in that room, respecting a man who spent most of his adult life serving our great nation. Every 10 seconds or so someone would perform the cross over their chest or get up from their knees after having prayed for President Bush. I said some prayers for him as well as I stood there.
I walked out of that room with a deeper understanding of servant leadership that I wish I had when I wrote Chapter 5 of my book which discusses servant leadership. Chapter 5 is still great and you’ll learn a lot from it don’t get me wrong. However, I understood the power of servant leadership so much deeper that night, or morning at this point, because I realized that servant leadership can only arise if it comes along with courage.
I’ve always been curious about that question, where does courage come from? What is it that allows people to persevere and operate despite danger, fear, and insecurity? Where is this well of courage that people draw upon to live lives such as that of President Bush?
I was so curious that I sat down with Professor Robert Bies at Georgetown University last week right in the thick of finals to get his thoughts. He’s a renowned leadership professor, architect of Georgetown’s Masters in Leadership and he teaches a course on Courage and Moral Leadership. Needless to say, I came to the right place.
He gave me a great quote from Lao Tzu that expressed courage in leadership simply and clearly:
From caring comes courage.
He’s absolutely right and that’s all Professor Bies had to say to me. Courage comes from an unshakeable devotion to your teammates and your cause. Courage is the steadfast commitment to always do the right thing over the easy thing. Courageous people do the right thing even though they know it won’t be easy and it may not be popular or sexy. Courage is standing up for the kid being bullied in the hallway. Courage is going out of your way to help a teammate in need. Courage is Major Dick Winters drawing enemy fire away from his teammates in Normandy. Courage is President Bush writing President-elect Clinton a note wishing him success as President even though Bush lost to Clinton.
While all of these examples may seem varied in their subject and importance, but they all have the same theme running through them: courage rising out of care. It is care of humanity that gives one courage to stand up for a kid being bullied, care of humanity that gives one courage to risk life for a teammate, and care of country that gives one courage to wish a political opponent success as President.
The courage to be a servant leader, to put others ahead of oneself, to take criticism, to withstand sacrifice, comes from care of teammates.
The other end of this relationship is how the served feel in response to their servant leader’s example. I walked out of the Capitol Rotunda feeling so much gratitude for the servant leadership of all in that room. The leaders in that room, President Bush, the military servicemen, and the Capitol Police all wrote blank checks to us all. I left the Rotunda wanting to live a life of service and purpose as they do. In short, their lives of service and clear servant leadership inspired me to live those same values. Servant leadership is the quickest way to inspire your teammates because it shows you have their best interests at heart.
I walked out of the Rotunda feeling so much gratitude for the way the leaders in that room had served all of us. Everyone from the military servicemen to the Capitol Police to President Bush served us as leaders. They wrote blank checks and withstood serious danger to serve us as leaders. But, the key to their servant leadership, especially President Bush’s, is that their courage arose from a well of care for their teammates.
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