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Do you serve to lead?

The 10th August 2001 was the day that an eight-year journey and dream of becoming an Army Officer finally came true. Whilst that day marked the end of my time at Sandhurst, it was of course just the beginning of my leadership journey. As I marched off the parade square on that warm summers day I looked down at the Sandhurst cap badge as I removed my hat for the last time. Three simple words stared back at me…

Serve to Lead

Those 3 simple words, Serve to Lead,  contain so much leadership wisdom. Wisdom that I now realise has been at the heart of my personal leadership philosophy, often at an unconscious level, throughout my entire career.

They may be just three words but they have a powerful dual meaning that I believe defines what it really means to be a leader.

SERVE…to lead.

On the one hand these words remind us that as leaders we are in service of those that we have been given the privilege and responsibility to lead. The best leaders are prepared and willing to make personal sacrifices for their team members, colleagues and customers.

Great leaders never sacrifice their team in order to fulfil or protect their own needs. They will never throw their team under a bus to make themselves look good.

Leaders Eat Last

When I was just a few months out of officer training I found myself on the shooting ranges with 100 soldiers from my regiment.  It was a cold, winters day and the rain had been blowing hard off the south coast, chilling us all to our bones.

At lunchtime, the arrival of the Squadron Quarter-Master signalled the opportunity to take a break and warm up.  As he arrived with the insulated food containers full of “Range Stew”, all 100 soldiers queued up with their Mess Tins to get their lunch. This would then be washed down with a steaming  mug of coff-tea (a mixture of Tea, Coffee and whatever else had been in that particular container over the last ten years).

I intuitively knew my place was not at the front of the queue. I joined around three quarters of the way back and not ten seconds later I felt a huge, authoritative hand come firmly down on my left shoulder.  As I turned around, it was the hand of the Squadron Sergeant Major, as I knew it would be.  The words that he said next have stayed with me ever since.

Mr Morton, Sir! Get to the back of the queue, officers eat last.

I duly obliged and took my place at the very back of the line. But it was what happened next that really drove home this particular lesson for me.

The two Squadron Captains moved and stood behind me, followed immediatley by our Officer Commanding who stood at the very back.

This is  leadership. This is what leaders do.

Why does it matter?

When those that we lead see that we will not sacrifice their needs for our own, they will feel safe.

And when those in our charge feel safe, they will want to reciprocate. They will be prepared and willing to make sacrifices themselves and follow us when the time comes.

They will be prepared to go the extra mile for us.


The second meaning of those three simple words is that as leaders we serve, or are employed, to lead.  Our primary job as a leader is to lead and provide leadership.  Yet as a result of the route that many of us take to leadership, we often fall into the trap of being busy “doing things”, instead of being busy leading.

We can fall into the trap of leading in our spare time.

To break this cycle, and free up time to focus on being a leader, we must ask ourselves some key questions and have the discipline to follow through on them.

  1. What tasks can I stop doing?
  2. What tasks can I delegate to others?
  3. Who in my team can I develop, so that they are able to do some of the tasks that I should no longer be doing myself?
  4. What tasks can I outsource?

Mission: Leadership – Lifting the Mask

If you want to know more about the leadership principles that I learned in the Army and have developed over 12 years in the corporate world, then you can check out my latest book, Mission: Leadership – Lifting the Mask here.

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