Muddy Boots Leadership

Feb. 21, 2012
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.

Hannibal was 25 years old at the time and some of the soldiers he led were nearly twice his age. How did he command their respect and extraordinary effort? 

Hannibal led by example. He slept amongst his soldiers and would not wear anything that made him distinct above them. He led his men into battle and was the last to leave the battlefield.

Or jump out of the airplane.

The United States Air Force uses an interesting twist on leading by example to ensure maximum performance. The USAF has a policy that people who pack parachutes have to periodically make jumps themselves. The result? The USAF has no quality control problem with chute packing. 

Or go to the mat.

I’m an adjunct instructor at the Alaska DPS Academy on a number of legal topics cops need to know about. I usually end a day’s classroom instruction of the recruits with a workout in the Academy’s fitness room.

On one such day, the recruits were still at dinner chow (it’s a residential Academy) when I wandered towards the fitness room a little before 1800. From the adjoining gym, I heard thuds, thwacks and grunts. The building is secure at that time and I thought the place was empty except for me. I cracked open the door and peeked in.

Corporals Lance Jamison-Ewers and Eric Spitzer were ground fighting on the mats. Their faces were red; their bodies were sweaty; they were panting with exertion. These guys had been up since 0400 to lead the recruits in morning PT and had put in a demanding day after that.

“Hey! What are you guys doing?” I shouted.

They stopped and looked at me without untangling. Both grinned like I’d caught them in a joyful indulgence. Lance sang out, “Working on DT, Ma’am.”

“You’re crazy!”

“Yes, Ma’am!” they both agreed.

“Carry on.” And they did. They gave it everything they had, and then gave it some more. I don’t know for how long because I left them to it.

So where’s the leading by example here? The recruits didn’t know their Corporals were working harder and longer than they had that day.

But I did. And while I left these Corporals to their grappling, they didn’t leave me. Their commitment, their passion for training hard and being the best they could be for the recruits, continues to make me want to work hard and well enough to be worthy of them and the recruits we train.

When did you last get your boots muddy?

You don’t have to be in a position of authority over someone to lead by example. I’d taught Corporal Spitzer as a recruit. Anyone can set an example of effort and perseverance that inspires others to extraordinary effort and action.

So, whether you’re a law enforcement executive, an FTO, an Academy trainer or fellow officer, when did you last get your boots muddy?

  • When did you last keep on breaking and replacing track when those around you didn’t think they could go on?
  • When did you last decide to be the change you wanted to see in the world?
  • When did you last give up some of your comfort to experience some of the discomfort your recruits or officers do?
  • When did you last jump out of a plane with a parachute you packed and do some of the job that they do?
  • When did you last hit the mat and do more than they do?

Because, here’s the thing,

“We lead by example, whether we intend to or not.” ~Unknown~

About The Author:

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website:

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