Muddy Boots Leadership

When officers are being asked to “do everything with nothing,” it costs a leader nothing but muddy boots to walk with them – and it can inspire extraordinary effort


Muddy Boots Leadership, an interesting book by Major John Chapman, USA (ret.), provides “real life stories and personal examples of good, bad and unexpected results.” Reading it reinforced my belief in the power of leading by example. That power has never been needed more than it is today.

In an economy riddled with budget cuts, layoffs, forced furloughs and hiring freezes, “doing more with less” is fast becoming “doing everything with nothing.” How do police leaders and trainers get that kind of supreme effort when their budget hands are tied?

General Patton, a leader renowned for getting from his men results they didn’t even think themselves capable of, had the answer, 

“Always do everything you ask of those you command.”

It doesn’t take money to get your boots muddy and lead by example. It does take courage and effort. In keeping with the topic, let’s look at some examples. The first is from Major Chapman’s book.

Breaking track.

It was late Friday night. The platoon had been breaking down tank track and replacing track shoes for hours. It was grueling work. The soldiers were beyond exhaustion. They were beyond intimidation. They quit working and sat down, waiting for the inevitable chewing out.

The platoon sergeant had worked just as hard and long as they had. He was every bit as tired and years older.  He approached the sullen group … and said nothing. He walked past them as if they were invisible. He slowly bent down, picked up the tools and began to break track alone.

For several minutes the soldiers watched him sweat and grunt. Slowly, one by one, they each stood up and resumed work. Not a word was said, not then, not ever.

A chewing out wouldn’t have moved the soldiers. Nor, I think would a pep talk or promise of some tangible reward. Instead, the sergeant led them by his own example. It took no budget line item or awards banquet. Just heart and guts.

The Sergeant epitomized what John C. Maxwell, best-selling author and speaker to Fortune 500 companies on leadership says,

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

Do as you say.

Soft-spoken and so slight as to appear frail, Mahatma Gandhi understood the power of leading by example. He captured its essence in one of his most famous quotes,

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

He also lived it. 

An Indian woman and her son traveled thousands of hot, dusty miles by train and foot to meet Mahatma Gandhi. Her son was addicted to sugar and the woman was worried about his health. Since her son deeply respected the leader, she thought if Gandhi would tell her son to stop eating sugar, he’d surely stop.

After many days of traveling and hours of waiting in line, the woman approached Gandhi and asked him for his help. Gandhi looked at the boy and told his mother to bring him back in a few weeks. Discouraged, she nevertheless agreed and repeated the arduous journey a few weeks later.

This time Gandhi looked at the boy and said, “Stop eating sugar.”  And the boy did. Slightly annoyed, the woman asked, “Why couldn’t you have said that a month ago?”

“Because,” Gandhi replied, “a month ago I was still eating sugar.”

Show you know the way.

If you’re asking your people to bear greater burdens, show them that you understand their pain. Sometimes all it takes is a heartfelt gesture.

During World War II, a battalion of British soldiers lined up to await inspection by Lord Mountbatten. It was a rainy day. The officers wore raincoats but the troops had none and they were soaked to the skin. When Mountbatten’s car pulled up, he emerged in a raincoat. Gazing at the soldiers before him, he shed his own raincoat and stepped forward to make the inspection … into the cheers of his men.

Get in the trenches.

Hannibal Barca was a military commander of the Carthage armyHis most famous victory was the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. where his army, although half the size of the Romans’, slaughtered over 70,000 elite troops of the Empire and took over 10,000 of them prisoner. It is regarded as one of the greatest tactical feats in military history and is still being discussed by military scholars today.

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