Leadership to emulate; lessons from Maj. Gen. Henderson

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Rob Southerland
  • 131st Force Support Squadron commander

As a husband, father, officer and supervisor, I am very aware that there are always people watching.  What do they see?  Am I approachable?  Am I encouraging an atmosphere that allows others to excel and flourish?  Do I tear down or promote barriers?  How I act, speak, treat others and conduct myself are always influencing others, but is that influence strengthening or hindering the mission and the people?  When I am gone, will people want to uphold my legacy?  Will my family, team and Air Force be better because of my influence? 

I challenge you to reflect on these thoughts as you read this article and ask yourself, “Am I a leader that others want to emulate?”

I met retired Maj. Gen. Ron Henderson in August 2011. It had been two years since he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was in remission when I met him and living a pretty normal life – until late that fall when the cancer aggressively returned. This is where I got to see courageous leadership up close, personal and on a stage for many others to also see.

The man I knew up until that point was someone I saw at church and had only heard about from others. I approached him about a possible meeting to ask questions and get some insight to what he believed was important, because I wanted to know what made this man great in the eyes of others. His response was, “0900, Saturday, my house. I look forward to visiting with you.” 

I was outside his house at 8:55 a.m., but did not go to the door until 9 on the dot. He opened the door with tubes in his nose, no hair, wearing his robe, and greeted me with the heartiest handshake he could muster. As sick as he was, he did not let his circumstance deflect his attention from me. It was at that moment that I realized that true, courageous leadership was being demonstrated right before my very eyes. Here was a man staring death in the face, bearing a burden that no one but he could understand, sharing his precious time with me.

He was demonstrating to me tremendous humility and value as he poured himself into me, which is what any great leader must do to allow their influence to continue when they are gone.  When we were done, I left having experienced a moment that will live with me for the rest of my life.

In his remaining months of life, Gen. Henderson was my benchmark for loyalty to people and to cause. If anyone had an excuse to skip work, find a substitute teacher or have someone take his usher duties, it was him. For him, it was just the opposite: he collapsed twice while teaching Sunday school.  When men tried to help him out of the classroom, he said, “Not until I’m finished.” This was not arrogance or stubbornness. On the contrary. It was loyalty and commitment to his mission and to those who depended on him. He fought the good fight and he finished the race that was set before him on May 3, 2012. 

To effectively lead people, you must value people: Not what a person has to offer, not their successes or failures, but the person. Some of the most successful teams in history were led by leaders that demonstrated love for each member of the team no matter their circumstances, their background or even what they had to offer. This does not mean coddling, but rather, is demonstrating love through discipline, fairness and time spent. 

You may say, “That’s just not who I am.” My retort would be: it may not be who are, but is it who you are supposed to be? If you want to see your unit or organization excel, love them, discipline them, reward their successes and own their failures. 

Our Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said, “Leadership is about people; management is about things.” People want to be led and they need to be led. Do not mistake your position for leadership. Let who you are define your leadership and not what you are. Maj. Gen. Ron Henderson modeled this principle with great humility, and was the greatest example of leadership for me to emulate. 

Are you that leader?