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Vol. 9, No. 4
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

©2012 William A. Cohen, PhD 

Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.


Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen not  Published  in the Journal of Leadership Applications:

Drucker’s Billion Dollar Reality Test  from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Marketing and Selling May Be Adversarial from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Success by Abandoning Success from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Doing the Right Thing is More Powerful Than You May Think from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Why What You Thought about Heroic Leadership is Probably Wrong from Integral Leadership Review

Uncovering Drucker’s Most Valuable Lesson from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Drucker to Leaders: Above All, Do No Harm from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Drucker’s Surprising View of Social Responsibility from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Personal Integrity – Its Risks and Consequences from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Drucker on Business Ethics from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

The 7th Universal Law of Leadership: Put Duty Before Self

© 2012  William A. Cohen, PhD  

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 hit Schwarzkopf.

                “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 Schwartzkopf put duty first. So, they did the same. The result was a complete rout of enemy forces.[i]

                Sixty years earlier, on June 3rd, 1905, a victorious Admiral Togo Heihachiro comforted his wounded prisoner after the Battle of Tsushshima which occurred a few days earlier during the Russo-Japanese War. His prisoner was Russian Admiral Zinovy P. Rozhdestvenski who had commanded a larger, but obsolete fleet. He had been badly beaten. “Defeat is a common fate of a soldier and there is nothing to be ashamed of in it,” said Togo. “The great point is whether we have performed our duty . . .. For you, especially, who fearlessly performed your great task until you were seriously wounded, I beg to express my sincerest respect . . .”

                Duty before self is a universal law of leadership that is as true in the boardroom as the battlefield.


This Airlines CEO Puts Duty First

                Herb Kelleher, was longtime CEO of Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines has been the most profitable airline in the U.S., and the one picked as first in quality by customer surveys. Kelleher advises: “If there’s going to be a downslide, you share it.” Kelleher did.

                When Southwest Airlines ran into trouble a few years ago, he went to his board of directors and told them he wanted his salary cut. He cut his bonus by twenty percent and all corporate officers by ten percent. These cuts were made before firing a single employee.[ii]

                Leaders who practice duty before self help others to accomplish almost impossible tasks though they face major obstacles. Yet, other leaders with few problems frequently fail, even when they face no major obstacles to their goals. Leaders don’t need to be combat veterans. They just need to put duty before self.


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 Aviator Puts Duty First as a Salesperson

                Lieutenant Rosanne Ott flew as an Army Aviator in the Gulf War and led a platoon in the 227th Aviation Regiment. She earned both an Air Medal and Commendation Medal during Operation Desert Storm. In a 1995 interview, she told me that she only did her duty. Of course, her duty included flying in harm’s way, taking care of her crew and her platoon, staying up late at night to complete administrative tasks, and risking her life whenever and wherever called for. Of course, she only did her duty.

                Out of the Army and a sales manager for the Johnson and Johnson Corporation, she works in a hospital setting. Many sales managers sell their products and then disappear. They rely on product literature or company specialists to insure that surgeons use their medical devices properly.

                Rosanne Ott considers it her duty to do a lot more. If surgery with one of her products starts at 7:30 in the morning, Rosanne shows up at 6:30. She works with the surgeon to make sure he or she knows exactly how to use the product. When not making sales calls, she hangs around the operating room, answering questions. As a result, when there is a question, physicians call on her. As you might imagine, others in her company look to her leadership as well. We will always turn to a leader who practices duty before self. [iii]              


What Made Washington a Great Leader?

                George Washington is not only known as “the Father of His Country,” but a great leader. Why? He was not perfect. He was not necessarily a great strategist. The highest rank he had held prior to our War of Independence was that of major in the British Army and colonel in the colonial reserves. He made plenty of mistakes, including recommending Benedict Arnold for promotion and entrusting him with one of the most important commands. Later, he made other errors. Recently a panelof British military experts designated Washington as the most effective opponent the British Empire ever faced. Why  is he considered such a formidable leader?

                First, Washington was a great leader because of his unquestioned integrity. The story about George Washington as a boy cutting down a cherry tree, and then admitting this act to his father rather than telling a lie may or may not be true. But the simple fact that such a story is told helps to confirm what his countrymen thought about his integrity both during his life and after his death. George Washington believed and maintained absolute integrity. Because of his integrity, others followed him in situations when they would not follow others. However, rivaling Washington’s integrity was the fact that Washington always put his duty before his own self- interest.


But Washington Did More

                During the war he suffered repeated defeats, insubordination and scheming by his senior officers and rebuffs and insults by the Continental Congress and other American civilians and politicians.  After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress failed to provide proper subsistence to his army. Although the war was over, officers and soldiers alike went begging for food. Again and again Congress made promises which it was unable to keep. Washington himself was frequently blamed. Finally, many senior officers, men like Colonels Henry Knox who became our first Secretary of the Treasury, and Alexander Hamilton, could take no more. They wanted to march against the Continental Congress and take charge of the country. They felt that a military dictatorship was the only solution to get the resources they needed. Washington was at the height of his popularity. These men wanted Washington to become military dictator of the United States.

                Washington had every reason to be frustrated and a lesser man might have succumbed to their offer. Congress had frequently promised, yet failed to provide for the Continental Army’s needs. Washington had complained repeatedly to the Continental Congress to little avail. Sometimes they ignored him completely. This was not entirely Congress’s fault, for the Continental Congress had little authority over individual States and therefore the young nation’s resources. Regardless, Congress took all of the blame, and it was a fact that American soldiers lacked even the bare essentials of food and clothing. It would have been easy, and probably even somewhat gratifying, to march on Congress and see them get what many thought they deserved.

                However, Washington would not agree to do this. His duty came first. It came before his own needs to gratify his frustrations after so many months and years of broken promises. It even came before the needs of his soldiers who suffered from Congress’s inability to do anything. So, he tried to dissuade his officers from their plans. They refused to listen to him. With so many involved, he could not order a general arrest.

                There was apparently nothing he could do. He could at least, however, stay out of the controversy. This would have preserved his popularity. This was a popularity that Washington both deserved and had earned. For Washington had not only beaten the British to win America’s independence. He had struggled mightily, and eventually successfully, against numerous Americans that disagreed with his leadership, held his army together despite incredible hardships, and persuaded allies to do far more than they intended to assist the American cause. Washington had done more than his fair share! No need to do more, when he could not anyway. Better just to assert his disagreement without rancor and to remain above it all.

                But one day an opportunity appeared to do something. Those in potential rebellion against Congress asked Washington to speak at a general meeting of their membership. He agreed to attend the meeting only if they gave him one last chance to convince them to abandon their scheme. The conspirators readily agreed. Washington had given all his arguments in the past. All had rejected them. Now was the time for action! If nothing else, it was another opportunity to try and persuade Washington. Perhaps he would agree to lead them this time.

                Although he had nothing to gain by his interference, and much of his personal popularity to lose, Washington again took his unpopular stance. He went over the arguments he had made to them previously. He could see by the looks on their faces that they were not persuaded. He felt depressed and despondent.

                Here was Washington, already risking the hard-earned good feelings of his fellow officers in trying to convince them not to take an action to which they were strongly and emotionally committed. But, he could not convince them. What else could he possibly do?

                Suddenly, he thought of one last desperate idea. Washington had never before revealed the fact that he was near-sighted. He had never worn spectacles in public. Few knew that he wore them at all. Now today, this means little or nothing. However, in Washington’s day, the image of a senior commander without disabilities was very important. A commander did everything possible to maintain that image. In some instances, this is true in modern times. It may be a sad commentary on the way some think, but remember that when Franklin Roosevelt ran for the office of President, he took great pains to conceal the fact that he was an invalid.

                Not hesitating now that he knew what he must do, he reached inside his uniform cloak and took out his glasses. He donned them for the first time in public before all his officers. There was a gasp from the audience. Slowly, he spoke these words: “I have grown old in your service . . . and now I am growing blind.” Having now given everything he had left to give, he turned and left the meeting.

                At first there was dead silence. Then someone spoke. His voice cracked slightly: “Maybe General Washington is right. Perhaps we should give Congress another chance.” And this is what they agreed to do. But, it was not Washington’s physical disability or the way he presented it that saved the country from a military dictatorship. It was Washington’s integrity and his willingness to put duty before self.

                 The famous Chinese general and military write Sun Tzu wrote:

And therefore the general who in advancing does not seek personal fame, and in withdrawing is not concerned with avoiding punishment, but whose only purpose is to protect the people and promote the best interests of his sovereign, is the precious jewel of the state.

                   Duty before self is a universal law of leadership.


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

[ii] Waxler, Robert P. and Thomas J. Higginson, Industrial Management (July-August, 1990) p.26.

[iii] Ott, Rosanne, Telephone interview with rge author, June 6, 1995.


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You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.

                                                                                    – General Robert E. Lee