The First Shall Be Last

At the hardware store near my house the two parking spaces closest to the building are reserved for veterans. I see them every time I pull into the parking lot, and every time I have a brief internal struggle as I try to decide if I should park in one of them.  I am a veteran, after all, and I appreciate the gesture the store makes, but sometimes I’m grateful that the spots are taken, and I don’t have to decide.

This may be hard for those who have never served in the military to understand. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that a veteran earned the right and would appreciate being honored. Why would a vet not take the prime parking spot when offered?

As a veteran, though, I understand that there are a great number of interpretations of the word “veteran”. The simplest definition is that a veteran is someone who has spent some amount of time in the military. A young person at some point raised their hand, took an oath, left home, and offered service to their country. Noble, for sure, and we should be grateful that so many take this step. There are many reasons many choose to do this: some seek adventure, some seek education, some are driven by a tug in their hearts to answer a call of duty, some seek all the above.

Some of these individuals will enter training and then have two or three years of uneventful service before transitioning back to civilian life. They will be different than all those who never made that choice – they have gained experiences and perspectives unlike anything offered to civilians. They took the risk by offering their service, gained skills, confidence, and a small treasure of stories and friendships. They’ve earned the right to park in the special parking spot and the discounts many businesses offer veterans. Our community is grateful for their service. I spent nearly eleven years in the Army before a minor training injury ended my career and would place myself in this category – I answered the call to service, but never received a call that took me into harm’s way.

Some enter service, however, and live an entirely different story. They may have entered seeking money for college or training in a technical skill, but instead found themselves deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other remote part of the world, often many times over a career. They may have seen some of the worst humanity has to offer and may have come home with physical injuries or, even worse, scars to their souls that few can see or understand. These are what I consider to be Veterans with a capital “V” – those who paid a dear price for their service. These are the Veterans that deserve our gratitude and all the honor and care we can muster for them.

Why do I wrestle with something so simple as a prime parking spot at a hardware store?

Because what I know about leadership I largely learned from my time in the military.

Leadership is so much more than just being “in charge”. It is so much more than a position, a title, or authority.  True leadership is an art; a skill honed by experience, informed by the wisdom of generations, and polished to the greatest shine not by those who demand attention for themselves, but paradoxically by those who place others first.

I served with many so-so officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Some were flat-out terrible: abusive with their positions, selfish in their pursuit of promotion or medals, or clique-ish with a small group that sought favors for each other. They demanded the best bunks, pushed to the front of the line at the mess hall, and were quick to make sure they were recognized for any awards they could get. Every unit I served in always had a couple of people like this, often in positions of significant authority. They were leaders by position and may have commanded by authority but earned little loyalty or respect. Their only effective leadership tool was fear: if one didn’t do what they asked, one would get in trouble. In my opinion it’s not an effective tool – when people are led by fear, they only do the minimum amount of work possible that is necessary to avoid discomfort.

When I reflect on my Army career, however, there are a few individuals that stand out to me as stellar leaders.  My first tank commander, whose name I cannot recall. He was a young Captain that carried an air of intelligence, capability, and compassion.  Captain Angela Giordano, the commander of Headquarters Company of the 14th Engineer Battalion, one of the first female commanding officers of a combat unit. My office was across the hall from hers, so I had the privilege of seeing someone lead with skill, grace, and authority in a position that only a few years earlier would have been closed to her gender.  In the office next door to her was a man whose leadership and character I will never forget: Chaplain Mark Benz – a man who had served in Vietnam as an infantryman and saw some of the worst things humans can do to each other, came home, went to seminary, and came back in the Army to provide inspiration and comfort for those who might someday have to see the same. His selfless service commanded respect wherever he went – I was fortunate to work alongside him for two years and frequently am reminded that I look on the world with eyes that were opened by his view.

And someone who deserves his own paragraph: Father Oliver Hightower, the Catholic priest who was an icon at the Main Post Chapel on Fort Lewis for most of the 1990s. It’s hard to find words that do justice for this man: he was a Lieutenant Colonel and could have easily demanded to be addressed as such, but he was simply “Father” to so many in the military community. He could have lived in some of the nicer quarters on post, but instead lived in the rectory at one of the churches off post. I suspect he did so for another officer and his family to be able to live on post. A man who easily could have afforded fancy cars and expensive clothes, but drove a simple, older sedan and shopped at thrift stores. I learned later that he sent most of his paycheck to an orphanage in Haiti.

These are types of leaders that are the most effective. The military teaches officers and NCOs to eat last and to care for their troops, but for many those practices were nothing but tradition or standards they were expected to follow.  The great leaders, however, took placing others before them to heart. I suspect all these individuals understood Jesus when He said, “if anyone wants to be first, he shall be last and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). It’s one of the great paradoxes: greatness comes not by seeking honor for yourself, but in seeking the best for those you lead. Leadership is about growing, inspiring, nurturing, and coaching people, always lifting them up and helping them find their best selves.

Leadership is about putting others first.

So, yes, I could take that front-row parking spot at the hardware store.

But I know the great leaders leave those spots open for others.

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