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Leadership lessons from an unlikely source

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Scott Mackenzie
  • 37th Helicopter Squadron commander
As a squadron commander at Air Force Global Strike Command's "best ICBM wing," one of my favorite stories on leadership comes from the United States Air Force Academy in the mid 1970's. It was about a squadron of cadets and a janitor named Mr. Crawford. For years, the elderly janitor went about his duties with little fanfare or recognition from the cadets. This all changed one day when one of the cadets came across an article describing the actions of a Pvt. William Crawford who, during World War II, was awarded a Medal of Honor for bravery beyond the call of duty during a battle in Italy.

Eagerly, the cadets presented the article to their janitor, who after thoughtfully reviewing it, gave a casual reply of "Yep, that's me." Almost instantly Mr. Crawford had become a celebrity throughout the Academy. Now cadets who had passed by him with barely a glance greeted him with a smile and a respectful, "Good morning Mr. Crawford." The squadron soon started inviting him to their functions and he went from being a simple fixture in the squadron to one of their teammates. Over the years, Mr. Crawford became as important a leadership example to those cadets as any of the textbooks or speakers they studied.

A wise person once said, "It's not life that's important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference." From that experience Col. James Moschgat, the cadet who learned of Mr. Crawford true identity, developed some leadership lessons that he learned from his relationship with Mr. Crawford that I've included below.

1. Be cautious of labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bind their potential. Be cautious of a leader who flippantly says, "Hey, he's just an airman." That airmen may be the one who saves your squadron.

2. Everyone deserves respect. Respect should not be reserved for only those with lofty titles. Respect is a basic human principal. Mr. Crawford deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among them and was a part of their team.

3. Courtesy makes a difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team.

4. Take time to know your people. Life in the military is hectic, but that's no excuse for not knowing the people who work for and with you.

5. Anyone can be a hero. Don't sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls.

6. Leaders should be humble. Most modern day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble. Not Mr. Crawford - he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well-served to do the same.

7. Life won't always hand you what you think you deserve. You may not get the recognition you feel you deserve, but sometimes you just have to persevere. Perhaps you weren't nominated for junior officer or Airman of the Quarter as you thought you should - don't let that stop you.

8. Don't pursue glory; pursue excellence. Private Crawford didn't pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living. No matter what task life hands you, do it well.

9. No job is beneath a leader. If Mr. Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity?

10. Life is a leadership laboratory. All too often we look to some school or professional military education class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet everyday will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look and listen.