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Vol. 8, No. 6
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.


Putting Duty Before Self

© 2010 William A. Cohen, PhD  

Adapted from  Heroic Leadership (Jossey – Bass, 2010)


When General Schwarzkopf was Major Schwarzkopf, he was an advisor to a South Vietnamese brigade. One of the senior Vietnamese officers was a colonel by the name of Ngo Quang Truong. Colonel Truong was short and skinny and didn’t look like a military hero. Still, he was worshipped by his troops and feared by the enemy commanders who knew about him. During a mission to find and destroy an enemy unit, Truong and Schwarzkopf were leading in an armored command vehicle.  Suddenly, a hidden machine-gun fired and Schwarzkopf was hit.


“I was in a little bit of shock as the medic bandaged me up,” Schwarzkopf said. “Truong squatted beside me and said, ‘My friend, if you would like, I will turn the personnel carrier around, and we will go back and get you a medivac. But I don’t want to do that. We’re in the position we need to be in, and I need your help.’”


Though wounded, Schwarzkopf agreed to keep going. They attacked using a plan Schwarzkopf helped develop. Truong’s troops saw that Schwarzkopf put duty first. So, they did the same. The result was a complete rout of enemy forces.[i] Duty before self is a law of leadership that is as true in the boardroom as the battlefield and a critical part of Heroic Leadership.


What is Duty?

Not atypically, if you look up duty in the dictionary, you will find several definitions. Two definitions capture the sense of what is required as a part of this universal law: 1. The actions required by one’s occupation or position and 2. A moral or legal obligation. We will see that we need both definitions in our examination of what is required by this law.


This Leader Says Duty before Self is Essential

Harry Walters is one of those unusual leaders whose experience spans the Army, the civilian world, and government service. After graduating from West Point and serving three years in the Army, he went into industry. He worked himself up to marketing manager of a company, then vice president, and finally president. At that point, President Reagan asked him to enter government service as Assistant Secretary of the Army, and two years later, Veterans Administration Administrator. Leaving government, Walters became CEO of several corporations.


Reflecting on his very heavy intercollegiate sports background in team sports including football, basketball, and baseball he says, “I always felt I was playing in a team environment whether in government or industry. If that environment didn’t exist, I always felt it was my job to create it. That’s the only way to win. If you don’t put duty before self, you can’t create a team environment.


“Unfortunately, that was the situation at the Veterans Administration at first. A team environment just didn’t exist. No one put duty first. There was a 30 billion dollar budget to take care of 11 million veterans, and it seemed that too many were looking out for themselves and protecting their own turf. Lincoln had started the Veterans Administration ‘to care for him that has born the battle.’ By the early 80’s, it seemed that Lincoln’s philosophy had got lost somewhere and it was as if the purpose of the VA was to restrict the benefits to which veterans were supposedly entitled, and to make things as tough as possible for them. The VA had taken on an adversarial role to veterans when it should have been an advocacy role. Moreover, there was no mission statement, no planning, no nothing.


“To me, duty before self means inclusion with no secrets. Why should there be any secrets, when the leader puts his own interests last? So I brought everybody into the party. That meant the veterans organizations like the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Jewish War Veterans, Congress who both represented the veterans and in addition were our bankers, and even the press. I held a press conference every Monday morning. When things went wrong, the press didn’t need to call me, I called them. I think I was one of the few people in government who the press never harassed.

“I gave the VA employees a mission: to help vets, with no politics and no secrets from anyone. Duty before self meant that the well being of the veteran came before any individual in the VA. We measured progress and held everyone accountable. We developed a motto, ‘America is Number One Thanks to Our Veterans.’ When people realized this was for real, we got cooperation from everyone from both parties in the U.S. Congress to the media. The VA employees were superb.


“Industry is no different. I spent a lot time with unions. But not fighting with them. I wanted them to understand my perception and I began to understand theirs. We spent far more time on how we could master the environment than we did with complaints. And in my opinion, that’s the way it should be. We were both on the same side. If there was ‘an enemy,’ it was the competition, not me, and not them. When a leader puts duty before self, he helps to create that team environment, whether its government or private industry, that is absolutely essential for success.”[ii]


Duty Before Self . . . Sometimes a Rarity in Industry

Is the attitude displayed by these heroes common in industry? Unfortunately, not. In many companies, the automatic solution to any slip in profits or in the stock market is downsizing. Newsweek stated: “After causing the problems through poor decisions, many CEOs offer up their employees as human sacrifices, hoping to get their stock prices up. If they do go up, they get a raise even while their employees suffer.”[iii]


The Newsweek article may have overstated the case. For example, it did not sufficiently emphasize that when workers are doing jobs that are no longer needed, or corporate survival is at stake, it is the leader’s duty to take action which may include layoffs to save the company. Otherwise, the company will ultimately fail and no one in it will have work. However, Newsweek correctly made the following points that no corporate leader should ignore:

  • a leader does not use his people as corporate fodder simply to look better on the bottom line
  • a leader does everything possible to assist and prepare people that must be released from their work for their future
  • a leader takes personal cuts himself before laying off anyone, and shares the pain by more personal cuts if layoffs are unavoidable
  • a leader never benefits by the misfortunes of those he leads

All American managers do not treat workers “as a tool to make money.” But some do. The leaders Newsweek talked about didn’t put duty before self. They transposed the correct order of priorities and put their own welfare before the needs of those they led. They fired loyal, productive workers, not for survival, but merely to look better for bottomline profits. They did little or nothing to help or prepare those that had to leave the company. They actually accepted salary increases and bonuses while increasing the misery of those that trusted in them and followed them. That’s not duty before self, and it’s certainly not Heroic Leadership.


High Concern for Mission and People Equals Success

Combat leaders know that concern for mission and people are closely intertwined, since without people, you cannot accomplish the mission. Therefore they cannot be considered separately or prioritized in a fixed order. If you adopt the priorities of mission or people in any fixed order, it will eventually be wrong for a particular situation.

The notion that you must have high concern for both mission and people may have originated with combat leadership, but it has been confirmed by management researchers. In the books, The Managerial Grid and The New Managerial Grid Drs. Robert Blake and Jane Mouton described a system of managerial effectiveness through a matrix showing concern for production on one axis and concern for people on the other. In a day when management books were only then gaining in popularity, their original book sold almost 1,000,000 copies. Their conclusions sound almost self-evident today. Essentially they were that a leader’s high concern for both production and for people (“head and heart” they called it) lead to a number of beneficial and synergistic consequences.[iv]So, to follow the concepts of Heroic Leadership both people and mission must be considered as very important, but not in a fixed and unchanging priority. There are times when the very top priority must be given to mission or work.  At other times your people must be given top priority. As a leader, you must insure that both priorities are at the top of your list, and judge which gets the primary call in a specific situation.  Both, of course, must come before self.


Consider Yourself Last

Sure, you’ve got to consider yourself. You owe something to yourself, and you have responsibilities to your family as well. If you never consider things like personal health, never get proper sleep, fail to spend the time you need to with your family, you are heading for massive trouble which can negatively impact your entire life, not to mention your ability to lead. However, the difficulty arises when those who claim to be leaders always consider themselves or their personal well-being first. As the mighty corporation he “headed south” in 2008, CEO John Thain of Merrill Lynch actually hired a famous designer to redecorate his office at a cost of over $1,000,000.[v] When all this became public later, he paid it back out of his own pocket. However, one has to wonder whether he was considering himself last at the time of his decision to redecorate. Ann Price, CEO of Motek, Inc actually prides herself on having the smallest office of all her workers, and that’s in good times!


If you are a leader, you’ve got additional responsibilities that you cannot avoid. You must take care of those who you expect to follow you. You’ve got to keep the wellbeing of those you lead in the forefront. You’ve got to consider the impact of any action you take or fail to take on the mission. And most frequently you’ve got to do this before you start taking care of your own wants and needs. Yes, as a leader you have certain privileges and power that others do not. But you also have much increased responsibilities as well. As a leader, others will do as you do. If you consider your own wellbeing first, before others, and before your mission, so will those you expect to follow you. In all likelihood, they probably won’t willingly follow you at all. They will be too busy looking out for themselves, too!


The World Conqueror Who Took Care of Others before Himself

Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world of his day. By the time of his death in June 323 BC, except for Genghis Khan who maintained his empire for but a short period, Alexander controlled the largest area of the earth’s surface ever to be conquered by a single individual. It is said that Alexander mourned the fact that there were no further worlds to conquer.  I do not know whether this was actually true or not. However, what is most certainly true is that a good deal of Alexander’s success was due to the fact that he was an exceptional leader who looked out for those he led even before he looked after himself. He made certain they were well fed before every battle. He was pretty tired after the Battle of Granicus in May of 334 B.C. as he entered Persia and managed to defeat a superior number of Persians under the Emperor Darius. Still, Alexander immediately took the time to visit all of his wounded. He personally examined their wounds and asked how they were received. He even encouraged them to boast of their exploits. As noted by military historian John Keegan, “ . . . excellent psychotherapy, however wearisome for the listener.”[vi] Only afterwards did Alexander look to his own needs and got some rest.


At the Battle of Issus, in Mesopotamia in November of 333 B.C., Alexander received a sword wound in the thigh. It was not life threatening, but Alexander was in considerable pain. As supreme commander and king, Alexander had access to the best doctors available. They were responsible for his life, and no doubt they erred on the side of caution and advised him to stay put for a couple of days. Nevertheless, Alexander ignored their advice. Though uncomfortable, he again personally made the rounds to visit his wounded soldiers before calling it day a day.[vii]


Hap Arnold Risks Death as a Four Star General During World War II

Not looking after your own well being first could be at some risk. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold commanded the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Fighting to build an air force that was second to none in the world, he drove himself unmercifully. He worked seven days a week, every week. Hap Arnold never served in combat. Still, during World War II, he secretly risked his life in disregard of his own welfare, placing the importance of the mission first.


In the middle of the war, Arnold had a heart attack. Some doctors told him that he must retire and give up the job of commanding the Army Air Forces. Others told him that he must at least slow down significantly and delegate much of his responsibilities. His condition, they told him, was life threatening. Arnold would not follow their advice. He fought to stay on active duty and succeeded. He restricted his activities only long enough to avoid retirement. Then he pressed on with his busy schedule. He had another heart attack. Now his doctors were really insistent on curtailing his mind-numbing schedule. Arnold responded: “I cannot ask my aircrews to do something which I am unwilling to do myself. I know that in not slowing down, as you advise, I am risking my life. But, we are at war. My airmen risk their lives every day. Until the war is over, I can do no less.” With few deviations, he continued his backbreaking schedule throughout the war. All told, he had four heart attacks before the war ended.[viii]

Arnold finally succumbed to a fatal attack. However, it was not until 1950, four and a half years after the war was over. Like Alexander the Great, Hap Arnold disregarded his personal wellbeing. Like Alexander the Great, he put his self-interest last and practiced duty before self. Arnold’s legacy continues in the U.S. Air Force to this day. Even the buttons worn on the current Air Force uniform are called “Hap Arnold buttons” because the insignia on them is reminiscent of the insignia worn by the Army Air Force, which Arnold commanded during World War II. Arnold’s major contributions were recognized with his promotion to the five-star rank of General of the Air Force towards the end of the war, the only five-star general the Air Force has ever had.


This Leader Saved His Company By Tangibly Sharing the Pain

Ken Iverson was the CEO of the then $4.2 billion Nucor Corporation. Nucor had consistently high profits in what can only be termed a declining industry: steel manufacturing. Nucor’s 7000 employees were the best-paid workers in the steel business, but the industry’s lowest labor costs per ton of steel produced. Nucor was a Fortune 500 company, but there were only twenty-four people assigned to corporate headquarters, and four layers of management from the CEO to the front-line worker. Nucor had no R & D department or corporate engineering group. Yet, the company was the first major operator of “mini-mills” and the first to demonstrate that mini-mills could make flat-rolled steel, the first to apply thin-stab casing, which ‘Big Steel’ had determined couldn’t be done, and the first to commercially produce iron carbide. In simple terms, it was Ken Iverson who took over a failing business and built it into a highly successful giant. How did he do it? What happened a few years ago might give us some insight as what might be necessary during other significant economic challenges.


When times were bad for the steel industry back in 1982, the total number of steelworkers dropped 50% from 400,000 to 200,000. At Nucor, they had to cut production in half. Iverson did not, however, “downsize” anyone. How did he avoid doing what every other steel company did? Department heads took pay cuts of up to 40%. Iverson and other company officers cut their salaries up to 60% and more. Even this wasn’t enough. So Iverson cut back workweeks from five to four, and then, three days. This meant that on average his workers suffered a 25% cut in pay. “You know that had to hurt,” said Iverson. “Still, as I walked through our mills and plants, I never heard one employee complain about it. Not one.”[ix] That’s not too surprising when those workers fully understood that their leaders were taking significant cuts also.


Iverson, who was once a naval officer, said, “I was in the Navy for three years and ended up as a lieutenant, junior grade. But I probably did not get my philosophies from the Navy. I was much too young (in at 17, out at 20).”[x]  Nevertheless, Ken Iverson clearly followed the principles of Heroic Leadership and put duty before self: “I took a 75% pay cut from $450,000 to $110,000,” he said. “It was the only right thing to do. Of course, nothing is written in stone. If we have to lay people off some day to save Nucor, we’ll do it. But not before we try everything else first. We call that pain sharing. When times are good, we share the benefits, and when times are bad, leaders have to share that as well. For all of us, but leaders especially, there is a duty that comes before personal interest, and certainly before my personal interest.”[xi] [xii]


Duty Before Self

Homer Laughlin China Co. manufactures China. The company managed to survive and even prosper during the Great Depression, because theaters were giving away dishes as door prizes to try and attract customers. However, in the late 1970s cheap imports almost did them in. By then, CEO Joseph Wells II and President Marcus Aaron headed the company. It was their grandfathers that bought the company from its founders in 1897.


At that time Homer Laughlin China was producing cheap dinnerware for the restaurant trade. The imports wiped out their price advantage, and sales plunged. Neither owner needed the money. They were tempted to call it quits. However, both knew that liquidating the company would decimate the community. Said CEO Wells: “These plant employees are the fourth and fifth generation at Homer Laughlin. I went to school with some of them.”[xiii] So, the two owners decided to stick it out, not for their own good, but for the well fare of their employees, and maybe a little bit because of the traditions of their families’ involvement with the firm. Sticking it out meant spending an additional half million dollars on a new kiln and reconfiguring their entire manufacturing process. In this way, they eliminated dozens of steps, reduced costs by 15% and cut production time from one week to one day. This in turn enabled them to reduce inventories by 75% and they survived.


To do more than survive, they brought out old molds for a once popular design called Fiesta. Bloomingdale’s launched the revived brand, and Homer Laughlin was back in business. Using cash flow from their Fiesta line, they moved into the custom china business with additional lines.[xiv] Naturally, Homer Laughlin workers responded to the fact that their leaders put duty before self. As a result ownership of the company in the 21st century is shared by third, fourth and fifth generation members of the Wells and Aaron families as well as by others across the country.[xv]


Heroic Leaders know that they cannot get others to follow them by putting their own interests ahead of the mission or those they lead. They know that they must put their personal interests last. This isn’t always easy, in fact frequently it is not. Still, you can accomplish this goal if you will:

  • Put Mission and People Before Your Own Needs
  • Share the Pain
  • Duty Before Self

[i] Schwarzkopf, H. Norman, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, (New York: Bantam, 1992) p.148.

[ii] Walters, Harry N., Telephone interview with the author, January 12, 1998.

[iii] Sloan, Allan, “The Hit Men,” Newsweek (February 26, 1996) pp. 44-48.

[iv] Blake, Robert R., and Jane S. Mouton, The New Managerial Grid (Houston: Gulf Publishing Co., 1964, 1978) p.95.

[v] Ross, Scott, “Merrill Boss Canned from Million Dollar Office,” Washington News, January 23, 2009, Accessed at , January 30, 2009

[vi] Keegan, John The Mask of Command New York: penguin Books, 1988). P.46.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Coffey, Thomas M., Hap (New York: The Viking Press, 1982) pp. 296-299, 300-301, 304-305, 334-336, 348-354.

[ix] Iverson, Ken,  Plain Talk, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New York, 1998). P. 13.

[x] Iverson, Ken, Letter to the author October 21, 1997.

[xi] Iverson, Ken,  Telephone interview with the author, October 30, 1997.

[xii] No author listed, “Nucor,” Wikipedia, Accessed at , January 29, 2009

[xiii] Oliver, Suzanne, “Keep It Trendy,” Forbes (July 18, 1994) p.88.

[xiv] Ibid. pp. 89, 94.

[xv] No author listed, “History of HLC,” Homer Laughlin China Web Site, Accessed at , January 29, 2009





“Heroic Leadership:  Leading an Organization through Crisis with Honor and Integrity by Dr. Bill Cohen is relevant and timely.  He illustrates the application of many sound leadership principles, established through experience in both peace and war…in the form of universal laws, tools, and competencies …by presenting an outstanding collection of contemporary and historic examples.  Heroic Leadership   should be on the reading list and in the library of every leader and student of leadership today.”  General Peter J. Schoomaker, U.S. Army (Ret.),  former Commander-in-Chief, United States Special Operations Command and former Army Chief of Staff


“Once again Bill Cohen brings forth a “must read” manual for present and future leaders. His ability to connect the leadership traits necessary to lead in our complex society is remarkable. The virtues of leadership are highlighted and this is a must read for those who are inspired to lead. He has given a gift to future leaders and I am humbled by his work.” – Harry N. Walters, Former Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and Administrator of Veterans Affairs for President Reagan 1981-1987


“General Cohen’s book is a major contribution to the literature of successful leadership. He has clearly demonstrated through this distillation of 30 years of study and practice that the successful Heroic Leader must, first of all, be a servant to those being led. Heroism involves sacrifice of one’s own interests in favor of others. The hard decisions of leadership invariably require sacrifice of comfort, personal gain, ambition, and even one’s life so that others might survive and succeed. Heroic Leadership is a superb guide to understanding and applying this concept of leadership.” – Major General John Grinalds, USMC, Ret, former President, The Citadel


“Must read this book! It will help leaders in and out of uniform to do what needs to be done to lead their organizations to success.” –  General Thomas G. McInerney, USAF, Ret., former Air Force Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, and Chief Executive Officer, Business Executives for National Security


For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



Do your duty and leave the rest to heaven.

                                                                                                —  Pierre Corneille, 17th Century French Dramatist