Lessons from the Field
I was binge-watching “Band of Brothers” recently and realized that the unit’s morale was crucial to their success. Morale depended not on external conditions, but on alignment around their vision and mission.
This revelation brought me back to my own experiences in the military. Now hear me out, I know Rotary clubs and a Marine unit in Vietnam might seem worlds apart. But the leadership and morale-building principles I learned during my tour of duty offer relevant insights for any organization.
During college, I joined the Marines to avoid classrooms, only to find myself immersed in various training environments focused on leadership doctrine. However, my most valuable leadership lessons came not from formal instruction but raw experience.
After six months in Vietnam, I was assigned as second-in-command of a disengaged, disillusioned unit with rock-bottom morale. The situation reflected ineffective senior leadership up until that point. This challenging backdrop set the stage for a transformative leadership case study with the arrival of our new commanding officer.
Our new C.O. arrived wearing spit-shined boots and sporting a crisp uniform and mustache that conveyed an intimidating, by-the-book persona. However, at our first unit-wide briefing, he encouraged us to address him informally and established only one non-negotiable expectation: fulfilling our collective mission. Beyond that, he empowered us with autonomy over our individual roles.
The team responded by initially relaxing routines, awaiting repercussions that never came. Boredom soon set in. Then one day, the C.O. asked me to fetch some tools and materials. Together we started constructing a new shower facility. When one of our sergeants investigated what we were up to, he asked if he could pitch in. Before long, energized by their newfound freedom, the whole team was suggesting and building various recreational and lifestyle facilities entirely through their own initiative. As officers, our role simply became supporting their efforts.
This hands-on leadership style, leading by example, sparked a transformation. Our once-listless unit became a motivated, collaborative high-performing team with sky-high morale.
The takeaways for any leader, including in Rotary, are clear:
1. Empower team members by giving autonomy within a defined mission scope.
2. Lead by active example rather than just administration.
3. Build community and reinforce shared purpose.
4. Encourage open communication and collaboration.
While structured leadership programs have value, experiential lessons often resonate most. Stories from the field highlight how the right approach can rally a team around a meaningful mission. Rotary leaders can draw from various sources to inspire high morale. Like in Vietnam, transformational leadership in Rotary clubs can unite discrete individuals into an unstoppable service force that others want to join.