Last week at the White House, President Obama awarded the first living Marine since the Vietnam War with the highest and most prestigious award acknowledged in the United States: the Congressional Medal of Honor. This award is given only to those in the armed forces who show “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty.” In other words, the men decorated with this medal have all shown amazing courage, leadership and selflessness in the face of certain danger. On Sept. 8, 2009, Sergeant Dakota Meyer was with his unit in Afghanistan when he overheard the requests for support by three Marines and a Navy Corpsman nearby who had been separated from their unit and were surrounded by the enemy. Meyer enlisted the help of another Marine, ignored the orders of his superior officers, and, as President Obama reported during the ceremony: “They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone” to recover the Marines, whom he found to have already been killed. Meyer carried each Marine’s body to safety, getting wounded in the process, until all bodies were out of the enemy’s reach.
When a man like this is recognized by the world as a hero, I cannot help but reconsider my own opinions and beliefs about what it means to be a leader. At Whitworth and within the Christian church, we are called to become “servant leaders”; however, all that leaves us with is an image of kind-hearted, smiling nuns…Or, perhaps, there is the image of ASWU and planning campus events, Whitworth students making sandwiches for En Cristo on Saturdays and Young Life leaders on weeknights. These are all great examples of servant leaders, but what makes a leader Medal of Honor-worthy? Following Meyer’s example, I have narrowed this broad question to a few characteristics:
1) Balls of Steel. Perhaps a more politically correct term would be a word that encompasses both courage and initiative. Meyer directly defied his own leaders to do what his moral compass was telling him he should do. He not only had to find courage to put himself in a dangerous situation over and over again, but he also found the courage to defy what his social structure told him he shouldn’t defy; he found the courage to listen to his heart rather than his head. While intellectual competence and ability to work with authority are both very necessary, it is imperative that both authority and reason have a moral foundation. When one’s moral compass isn’t pointing the same way as, for instance, what one’s boss says, moral initiative must come into play.
2) Humility. The most frustrating thing about leaders is when they believe they are indispensable. From this vain perspective arises the issue of power. When Meyer responded to the Marines in need, he was willing to give his own life to save his brothers in arms. Meyer summarized my point well in saying, “I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was.” He was courageous enough to run through whizzing bullets and loud, violent explosions because he was confident his unit could function without him, and knew those Marines couldn’t survive without his help.
3) Complete Selflessness (or Lack of Ulterior Motive). It saddens me to think that there are leaders, whether they be in the church, in our government or elsewhere, who are only in those positions for their own self-gain. Can you imagine what would have happened if a more self-serving man had been in Meyer’s shoes? Perhaps more men would have died, or those Marines’ bodies would have never been able to come home. There is a need for more genuine leaders in our world today, and I can say that a bit of my faith in humanity was restored when I heard about what Meyer did.
4) Love. As 1 Corinthians states so correctly, “Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (NLT). A leader who doesn’t love his or her peers is no leader at all. A true leader is an individual of moral character, whose actions are shaped by his concern for the well being of those to whom he is entrusted. Without love, a leader will fail to make the right decisions. Without love, those under this leader’s authority will not have faith in their leader to take care of them, and rightfully so!
So what does this mean for the Whitworth community? I encourage every one of us to reconsider our definitions of leadership. I encourage every Whitworthian to seek to be a leader of higher standards. Can you imagine a world where everyone’s actions showed absolute courage in the face of danger, where everyone’s motives were filled with love? Can you imagine a world where everyone deserved a Medal of Honor? The world might seem overwhelming, so let’s just start with Whitworth.
By Rosie Brown