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Don't Be Above Others
by U.S. Army Col. Stephen Messenger
Commander, Fort McCoy Garrison
June 14, 2024

Humility ... It’s rare we see this quality highlighted in leaders, yet it’s one we all desire to have.

When we think about optimal characteristics of leadership, we often think about confident, competent, tactically, and technically proficient professionals who get the job done and care about others.

U.S. Army Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. Stephen T. Messenger official Army photo. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army courtesy photo.)
U.S. Army Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. Stephen T. Messenger official Army photo.
(Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army courtesy photo.)

These qualities embody people who usually succeed in their work, promote often, and receive accolades. The more we tell others how great they are, the more they believe it. This is good ... until it’s not.

Some start to display an air of arrogance, and it’s hard to blame them personally. After all, the system constantly tells them they’re great, this emboldens them to take bold risks that pay off, and their egos grow even larger.

We all know people like this. They’re good, and they know it. Often, they let you know it. As their position, rank, perks, large office, and ego grow larger and start to seem like a big deal, they slowly begin to believe the hype about themselves.

It’s the exact opposite of servant leadership. They believe their successes are based solely on what they’ve done and not what the team has done for them. They end up serving themselves instead of others. It becomes all about “me” and less about “us.”

As we continue career progression, it’s critical to remember that we’re no more important than anyone else. Stay humble.

The Top Gun
In the beginning of Top Gun, Maverick and Goose courageously ... and recklessly ... escort a struggling pilot back to the aircraft carrier deck. In the debrief, their boss briefly acknowledges the bravery of the act but proceeds to chew them out for a number of egotistical infractions ... putting their jet in danger, losing qualifications, buzzing the tower, and even hitting on the admiral’s daughter.

During the reprimand, the commander of the Air Group tells Maverick, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” Maverick is the definition of an incredibly successful individual, whose ego is out of control. It’s obvious by the way Maverick and his back-seater Goose mock their boss in the back-and-forth dialogue, shrugging off every insult.

May 18, 2024 - Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. Stephen Messenger speaks with Wisconsin youth, who participated in the Army Cadets Xperience at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. He spoke to them while they were visiting the 2024 Fort McCoy Armed Forces Day Open House. Dozens of youth were part of the experience that was held in May at the installation. (U.S. Army Photo by , Wis.(Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Scott T. Sturkol, Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office.)
May 18, 2024 - Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. Stephen Messenger speaks with Wisconsin youth, who participated in the Army Cadets Xperience at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. He spoke to them while they were visiting the 2024 Fort McCoy Armed Forces Day Open House. Dozens of youth were part of the experience that was held in May at the installation. (U.S. Army Photo by , Wis.(Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Scott T. Sturkol, Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office.)

While Maverick is fictional, we’ve all seen leaders suffer from a similar problem of hubris, George Patton may be one of the most culpable.

Old Blood and Guts
Gen. George S. Patton was a fascinating and complex World War II American tank commander. He was brilliant on the battlefield and feared by the Germans more than any other foe. Yet Patton’s lack of humility caused him personal strife on multiple occasions.

Patton’s victories emboldened him to speak his mind freely and without considering the consequences. In 1943, Patton physically struck and verbally abused two soldiers who he considered mentally weak, opposite to how he treated his soldiers who were physically wounded.

Pvts. Charles Kuhl and Paul Bennett were suffering from battle fatigue. When Patton found them in their respective infirmaries, he ordered them back to the front lines, disregarded their debilitating stress, and physically struck them.

Patton’s massive ego could not comprehend a Soldier who was mentally broken to the point of incapacitation. He was ordered to apologize to them and the public.

In 1944, he spoke at the British Welcome Club in Knutsford, England, and took it upon himself to dictate global policy, citing it was “the destiny of the United States and Britain to rule the world.”

Discounting every other United Nations except Great Britain, he countered U.S. policy and insulted coalition members.
The Washington Post described Patton as follows: “Whatever merits as a strategist or tactician he has revealed glaring defects as a leader of men.”

Eisenhower wrote, "this arises doubts as to the wisdom of retaining him in high command.” While not relieved, he was sidelined during D-Day, much to his embarrassment and disappointment.

Again, while Patton was an amazing battlefield commander, his ego caused trouble multiple times for Eisenhower and allies alike. A few of Patton’s quotes give us a clear view into his arrogance and self-importance.

“You are not beaten until you admit it.” While a great wartime mantra, within his chain of command he repeatedly complained about orders he was given and pushed back within his own organization.

“Do your duties as you see it and damn the consequences.” This quote notes his blatant disregard for authority and altering orders to meet his personal lens. His lack of care for consequences shows a leader with an ego that outruns his authority.

“The most difficult thing about being humble is you can’t brag about it.” Even his quotes on humility show his desire to elevate himself above others.

Patton thought he was better than his peers, and that his way was the only way. While he remained a stellar leader on the battlefield, his ego caused personal, professional, and international strife, creating problems for those around him.

Leaders Must Cultivate Humility
Value others. Instead of asserting dominance, we should assert servanthood. If we truly believe that our leadership is about the organization instead of ourselves, people must always come first. The ability to engage with those in our ranks, understand their successes and challenges, and truly care about their hardships is paramount. To be a good leader you have to do two things: care about others and do something about it.

Patton cared passionately for his soldiers, but he did not value them. The slapping incident is just one example of this. If he did, he would see individuals who were hurting just as much as those with physical wounds and treat them in the same manner.

Listen to learn. Often, we listen to respond, not to understand. It takes a humble leader to stop talking and hear what others are saying. When we truly listen to others without an agenda, we gain an appreciation for the organizational culture, individual issues, and collective success.

Patton freely spoke his mind and struggled to learn others’ points of view. He routinely pushed back on authority and did his “duties as (he) saw it.”

This created an environment where he failed to see the bigger picture by listening and singlehandedly insulted WWII allies on behalf of America.

Encourage criticism. With leadership comes criticism. Just look at any sports figure or politician. Yet organizations don’t always have the “luxury” of newspapers or social media offering unsolicited opinions ... whether good or bad. That means we must be the ones who encourage our people to conduct critical analysis of our actions and decisions, then talk about them.

The best leaders encourage feedback. But if we’re not leading the charge on assessing our actions in public and seeking to get better, no one is.

After Patton’s Knutsford remarks, Eisenhower wrote him that he was warned “time and time again against your impulsiveness in action and speech,” and yet Patton did not learn. We must receive feedback and change our behaviors.

Don’t Be Above Others
A higher rank, larger office, or more prominent title may seem like a big deal, but it’s not. When success breeds success, like Patton, it’s easy to become emboldened in words and deeds. Yet, if we’re truly thinking about the organization over ourselves, we demonstrate servant leadership qualities of humility, learning, and teamwork.

By valuing others, listening to learn, and encouraging feedback, we can demonstrate that we are not above those with whom we work and gain credibility in the process.

Leaders are not above their people. We are merely another part of our organization.

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