The Shoulders of Giants

March 10, 2017 | Industry leaders flying under the radar Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International,

What does it mean to “fly below the radar”? The phrase traces its origins to military aircraft that would fly beneath radio detection and ranging, or “radar,” to avoid discovery by enemies. In business, the phrase flying below the radar has a couple of meanings:

  1. To describe someone who is trying to conceal bad behaviors from detection.
  2. To describe someone who prefers not to draw attention to him/herself.

It is the latter characterization of flying under the radar that is the focus of this issue on silent leaders.

By definition, leadership is about leading other people. Complete silence is therefore not possible. What we do see and admire across varied industries are leaders who modestly lead with a keen focus on people and goals instead of on drawing attention to themselves.

Consider this enchanting story with a military connection.

The new school year had just begun at Robinson High School in Little Rock, Ark. Martha Cothren, a social studies teacher, taught her students a powerful lesson on that day in September 2005 when they arrived to school to find there were no desks in the classroom.

When the students inquired about their desks, she said, “You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn them.”

The young people pondered the question and came up with a few ideas. Some wondered if they earned the desks by getting good grades. Some speculated that they might earn them with good behavior. She told them that was not how they earned the desks.

By early afternoon news of this unusual experiment had spread. A television crew arrived to report on the crazy teacher who had taken the desks away. Finally the last period came and no one had figured out how they earned their desk. She invited the students to sit around the edges of the room on the floor so she could tell them.

She opened the door to the classroom and welcomed 27 U.S. military veterans, wearing their uniforms, to the classroom. Each veteran was carrying a desk. They placed the desks in rows and then stood by the walls.

The students had their aha moment. They were beginning to understand how the desks were earned. Ms. Cothren said, “You don’t have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it’s up to you to sit here responsibly to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don’t ever forget it.”

As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

In 2006 the Veterans of Foreign Wars named Martha Cothren as their “Teacher of the Year.”

What tips does this story hold for leaders?

  1. Silent leaders celebrate contributions. They don’t make it about themselves. The teacher in this story tapped her creativity to honor people, in this case veterans, in a meaningful and memorable way.
  2. Silent leaders inspire people. The leader challenged her students to reflect on those who came before them. It is a powerful lesson that extends far beyond the standard coursework she leads daily.
  3. Silent leaders mobilize where needed. The veterans featured remind us of the daily examples of leadership through selfless service that we see demonstrated in the careers of men and women in uniform.

These are important tips for all leaders to remember – both the silent and the not-so-silent.