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A simple leadership challenge with a twist: Identify your heroes – now emulate them

In “Sailing True North,” Admiral James Stavridis challenges leaders to consider who they admire, then put their virtues into action


In “Sailing True North,” Admiral Stavridis discusses 10 historic admirals from ancient Greece to the 21st century, not just regarding their leadership decisions but also some of their quality leadership traits and even their character flaws.

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I’ve written several articles on leadership, a few of which have focused on the traits of a recognizable leader. So, I was surprised at the unique approach taken by the author of one of my latest reads, “Sailing True North.”

Retired Admiral James Stavridis is no stranger to leadership, having served as both the supreme allied commander of NATO, and previously commanded the U.S. Southern Command, which directed military operations in Latin America. Most recently, he served as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

In “Sailing True North,” Admiral Stavridis discusses 10 historic admirals from ancient Greece to the 21st century, not just regarding their leadership decisions but also some of their quality leadership traits and even their character flaws. Stavridis ends these studies with his list of leadership virtues for us to consider: honesty, justice, humor, creativity, balance, empathy, humility and resilience.

Leadership virtues

Several of these virtues would not have been on my list for leadership, but that each certainly had its purpose and place on his agenda. Specifically, the most surprising of these traits that the admiral highlighted – particularly given that the list was focused on military leaders – were humor, balance and humility, but I do see the importance of each.

In humor, I’ve found that there are times when you must remember not to take yourself or others too seriously. Sometimes, under the right conditions, it’s OK to poke a little fun at yourself or at a situation just to relieve some tension.

The same is true of balance. If there has been one complaint from my family over the years, it would be that I needed more balance among family, work, rest and study than I did when I became the chief, or aspiring to be one. I now preach the importance of balance to my younger officers to help them avoid burnout and maintain a healthy family life.

As for humility, it is essential for leaders to give credit to those who have worked so hard alongside them. Humility reminds us that we are all a part of the team, and one person can’t know it all. Everyone who contributed to such an effort needs to be recognized for their contributions.

The “good challenge”

More important than his list of virtues, though, was the admiral’s “good challenge” to anyone in a leadership position.

The challenge was simple: Identity your heroes. The admiral suggests picking at least five, but no more than 10, individuals you admire for their positive leadership traits.

Step by step: Get out a piece of paper and write down the names of your heroes, those you’d wish to imitate or follow. You can select them from family, friends, historic figures, people you’ve met in your lives, or current leaders from anywhere around the world. Next to each name, the admiral indicates, write the specific characteristic or qualities that you find most compelling about them.

The hard part of his challenge comes next. In a separate column next to the quality expressed for each individual, the challenge is to track how you emulate that quality in your own life. Perhaps not as simple a challenge as it first seemed.

In my life, I’ve met and admired several leaders, and there are several I have only known vicariously. Following is Step 1 of the challenge – listing my heroes and my perception of their leadership qualities:

  • Chief Cloyce Snyder, a fire chief’s chief, for being a patient teacher and developing the potential within himself and others, including me – mentoring.
  • Chief Alan Brunacini for his sense of humor and ease of expression – clarity
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for her understanding of the historic perspective and culture of the country in which she was negotiating – insight
  • President George H.W. Bush in his ability to listen and ask relevant questions while putting the speaker at ease – listening
  • Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her unwavering resolve during the Falkland Crisis – determination
  • Senator John McCain for his resolve to remain honor-bound under near impossible conditions – resilience
  • My Dad who taught me that a father can only give his children three lasting gifts:
    1. A “moral compass” to know right from wrong in ever changing world – faith
    2. An unquenchable thirst for truth and knowledge – education
    3. A name without blemish to pass from generation to generation – legacy

I keep a tally of my attempts to improve my leadership skills while trying to emulate these leaders.

I would like to hear from you on whether Admiral Stavridis’ leadership challenge resonates with you and helps you track your improved leadership skills.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.