I would rather have a Medal of Honor than be President of the United States.
- President Harry S. Truman
I recently had the privilege of visiting the Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown in beautiful Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Showcased in this museum is a moving tribute to our military heroes who served our country with honor, valor, and bravery.
What caught my eye was recognition given to the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor, William “Willie” Johnston. Born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont in 1850, Johnston was a drummer boy in Company D of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. His service in the Seven Day retreat in the Peninsula Campaign was exemplary.
During the retreat many of the men threw away their equipment so they had less of a load to carry. Johnston retained his drum and brought it safely to Harrison’s Landing. It was there he had the honor drumming for the division parade. He was the only boy to bring his instrument to the battlefield. Upon receiving word of Johnston’s bravery, President Lincoln suggested he be given a medal; a Medal of Honor.
Heroic acts by leaders like Johnston give cause for us to reflect on our motives and how we might better serve those we lead. An 11 year-old drummer boy on a battlefield 149 years ago teaches us three leadership traits worth emulating.
Leaders carry their own weight. While the other men in the infantry threw away their equipment, Johnston held to his. So often during difficult times, the leader is not the one who discards the weight of responsibility but carries it on his shoulders. Think about it. How many people in your organization are shirking their responsibilities and how many are stepping up and being responsible? See a disparity?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” At a tender young age, Johnston exemplified leadership beyond his years of understanding. As a drummer, he teaches us that it is not about rank or role within the organization, but heroes in our midst can be found if we dare to look.
Leaders know how to stand alone. At the conclusion of the retreat it was only Johnston who returned his drum from the battlefield. And it was only Johnston who had the honor of drumming for the division parade. When others exempt themselves from the bravery of the moment, they exempt themselves also from the honor that follows.
It’s been said, “When you are forced to stand alone, you realize what you have in you.” When you march to the beat of your own drum you do so knowing that there are certain places where only few leaders go. When others choose to the path of least resistance, you will cast your lot with the company of the brave. Those ranks may be few but you have grown to understand there are worse things than standing alone. By standing alone today you will lead the parade tomorrow.
Leaders summon uncommon courage in uncommon times. By shedding their gear, the other men did what was expedient. By holding on to his drum, Johnston did the exceptional. C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Testing points come and go, but the enduring qualities of honor, sacrifice, and valor shine in unexpected ways from unlikely persons. This 11 year-old drummer boy distinguished himself among men and earned a medal from the president.
Consider the ranks of your organization. Who are the ones that stand out by their service, sacrifice, and dedication to the organization? These are the ones who march to the beat of their own drum- called to stand out, not to blend in. They may not have the title, but are leaders worthy of respect.
© 2011 Doug Dickerson