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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:08 AM ET, 09/16/2011

The Medal of Honor, and what ‘leadership’ really means


President Obama awards the Medal of Honor to Dakota Meyer, the first Marine to be so honored for actions in Aghanistan. (Bill O'Leary - WASHINGTON POST)
I write about leaders every day. Those who lead their field, such as sports stars with raw talent or innovators with bright ideas. Others who lead large organizations, and their various antics and foibles. Those who technically lead nothing, but have amassed a group of followers all the same. And of course, those who lead our country or would like to, sometimes with leadership qualities but just as often without.

But it is rare that I get to write about people who are leaders in every sense of the word. Today is one of those days. Dakota Meyer, the first living Marine to earn the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, was honored by the president Thursday for his actions in Afghanistan that helped to rescue three dozen fellow soldiers and recover four dead American troops.

The details of his valor and leadership qualities have by now been well accounted. He showed courage to an extraordinary degree: He braved enemy fire five times, fighting his way into an ambush in an Afghan ravine and killing eight Taliban soldiers in the process. He has a clear moral center, willing to go up against the command of his officials to do what he felt was right. And he is exceedingly loyal to his colleagues, unwilling to leave behind men he considered brothers in an episode that has been examined over and over again and at times called an institutional failure.

Even after the controversial ambush, Meyer’s leadership narrative remains intact. He is unwaveringly conscientious, asking the President to call back during his lunch hour because he was currently on duty in his construction job. He is humble, telling The New York Times that “my story is one of millions, and the others aren’t often told.” And he’s using his own power to serve others, working to raise funds for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

That is what a leader looks like. Even if Meyer was only a corporal in the Marines when the historic battle occurred, even if he now works a construction job rather than run a large company, he demonstrates the kind of attributes and qualities that define someone worthy of the name. He may not have a high rank or a big salary or a powerful job, but he is in every sense someone who displays qualities we might all do well by following.

I’m just as guilty as the corporations out there who call managers who are more focused on the bottom line than the right thing “leaders” for convenience’s sake. I probably do it just about as often as the agencies and institutions who call supervisors who have little care for the broader mandate of their job “leaders” because it might help to motivate them. It’s understandable shorthand, I realize—people do lead organizations, political institutions or governmental agencies, even if they don’t always display leadership qualities themselves.

Still, it’s worth working on. Dakota Meyer is a reminder that all too often, the word “leader” gets overused, and that every once in a while, someone comes along who shows us the true meaning of the name.

More from On Leadership:

Service to America medal goes to young Treasury sleuth

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By  |  11:08 AM ET, 09/16/2011

 
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