I was confused when the soldier pointed toward the front of the line. Men in fatigues stood conversing, waiting for their turn to eat among an endless sea of people. Sheepishly, I moved past the soldiers who continued to joke, and though I was cutting in line, they paid me no mind. Scanning each rank, I continued to make my way forward until I reached my posse — the lowest of the low — Privates. Having recently graduated basic training, I carried the second lowest rank one could have in the United States Armed Forces. I was used to Drill Sergeants and cadre screaming at me, so when I joined my unit, I thought it was a trick that the senior leaders were sending me to the front of the line to eat. But as I came to find out, this was the rule — not the exception — because as they told me, “leaders eat last.”
The “leaders eat last” credo was so ingrained, that senior leaders who subverted the rule were looked down upon and rebuked. As I climbed the ranks in the Army, I too, learned to emulate the creed as it was shown it to me. I went to bed last, ate last, took care of my men’s needs before my own, and lived the values we’d memorized in the non-commissioned officer’s creed:
”No one is more professional than I. I am a noncommissioned officer, a leader of Soldiers…. I will not use my grade or position to attain pleasure, profit, or personal safety.”
Once I left the military, I carried these values into the workplace. When my company hit a rough patch that led to pay cuts, I declined my paycheck for the month so the rest of the staff could receive theirs. When asked by a teammate why I would do something that drastic despite making peanuts in a non-profit start-up, I shrugged and told him, “leaders eat last.”
I assumed this was the way those at the top operated, but as the years have ticked by I’ve seen everyone from politicians to CEOs to faith leaders make it about the perks, money, and influence. Few leaders have emerged in such tumultuous times. Instead, we have bosses, girlsbosses, influencers, hustlers, political pundits, and internet celebrities; many capitalizing on tragedy instead of working to fix it.
What on earth happened to our leaders?
“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”
— Simon Sinek
As a former Texas resident until March 2020, I thought my friends were kidding when they told me they’d been boiling snow and filling their bathtubs to use as water reserves.
During February 2021, Texas got hit with a winter storm that crippled the infrastructure and left hundreds of thousands without power, heat, or water. One of my best friends lost power for over a week and lived in a home with seven other people and six animals. Another friend who didn’t lose power hosted the same amount in his household, but stated his neighbor was the real MVP. This guy went up a steep, frozen hill four times to deliver baby formula, get a 10 week old baby and mother to a heated home, and then snagged two elderly couples with multiple sclerosis. To top it off, that same neighbor went to the grocery store afterward and cooked for seventy-five people in his neighborhood. By definition, that, is leadership.
In comparison, the response from elected officials — commonly referred to as “public servants” — was damning at the very least, and laughable at best. Senator Ted Cruz fled to a luxury resort in Cancun to escape the winter storm once his home lost power. Initially, he stated he went to support his daughters and be a “good dad,” but text messages obtained by The New York Times showed his wife Heidi contacted friends and neighbors to propose a getaway from the scathing cold. The debacle turned Cruz into a meme, and when he returned a day later after massive blowback, he posted a photo in an empty parking lot where he “helped” with relief efforts. The internet was quick to point out the shameless photo op as a means of damage control for his tarnished reputation.
Former governor Rick Perry then followed suit, when he suggested Texans should suffer blackouts as long as it kept the federal government out of their power grid. Perry wasn’t suffering from freezing cold temperatures, frozen pipes, or defecating in his backyard as my friends were forced to do, though. If so, he might have changed his tune.
Perhaps the most disappointing response came from former Navy SEAL and Houston Congressman, Dan Crenshaw. Crenshaw alone should know the motto of “leaders eat last.” Fellow Navy SEALs like Jocko Willink have also stressed the SEAL code of “extreme ownership” and how blaming others is unacceptable. However, instead of seeking solutions to the problem, Crenshaw did the very opposite and pointed fingers, even blaming renewable energy for the outages (He also previously mocked California when they suffered rolling blackouts). His claim — which Governor Greg Abbott parroted — was quickly debunked and even refuted by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
While it’s easy to pick on Texas politicians, Texas isn’t the only place with a leadership issues. All across the United States, politicians and faith leaders are imploding under the weight of their own hypocrisy and self interest.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, California governor Gavin Newsom demanded that constituents avoid socializing and wear masks at all times, even going so far as having police arrest those who defied the order. Yet, Newsom, his wife, and top officials for the California Medical Association dined in close proximity and without masks at a fancy restaurant named The French Laundry. Reports state that the party’s wine bill alone was $12,000, making it an opulent “let them eat cake” moment with little regard for his constituents. Once pictures leaked, Newsom backtracked, stating he made “a mistake.” Newsom, however, was not arrested, fined, or jailed. He remained the governor while the average voter was the one fined or incarcerated.
Newsom isn’t the only other politician lacking fortitude, however. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got her hair done in San Francisco while salons were ordered closed. San Francisco Mayor London Breed followed Newsom’s lead and also dined at the French Laundry, ignoring her own directives. Denver’s Mayor, Michael Hancock, urged Colorado residents to stay home and avoid travel during Thanksgiving only to fly to Mississippi to be with family. Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, told everyone to stay home from a luxury time-share in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
In these times of national distress, we don’t just look to politicians solely for guidance. Many turn to faith leaders to make sense of troublesome times and seek spiritual guidance. The only problem was that major faith leaders became part of the black hole of leadership as well.
Breaking in late 2020 was news that “hype-priest” pastor, Carl Lentz of Hillsong New York City, had been cheating on his wife. While fired for his moral failing, further reports originating from other women, church volunteers, and his dog walker confirmed a pattern of unfaithfulness over the years. Hillsong promised an investigation, but more telling was the church’s response to this information as whistleblowers brought issues up over several years. An investigative report by Vanity Fair released in February 2021 detailed gross abuses of power, negligence, greed, and gaslighting by most of the staff at Hillsong. When volunteers or concerned parishioners brought up Lentz’s behavior, the charges were denied, evidence buried, and whistleblowers shamed.
Not long after Lentz’s fall, the late Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias and his subsequent ministry, RZIM, had their own scandal break. After several years of allegations of sexual misconduct plaguing Zacharias, RZIM hired the law firm, Miller & Martin to investigate the accounts of sexual misconduct. Their report stated Zacharias had engaged in “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.” The report also stated that he “used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a ‘humanitarian effort’ to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time.” After the scandal broke, additional reports of toxic leadership at RZIM surfaced in which staff members were bullied or silenced for asking questions regarding Zacharias’s troubling behavior.
If a pandemic, freak Texas winter storm, and shady church leaders have taught us anything, it’s not that we were ill-prepared for such tough times; it’s taught us that there’s an absolute vacuum of leadership.
Looking at these examples, one might wonder how we’ve strayed so far from the servant model of leadership, but it’s not that hard to fathom. It all starts with micro concessions. In fact, that’s how all addictions start. It’s never wide, sweeping actions that result in someone becoming a workaholic, but always little compromises. For many in positions of influence and power, the descent begins with the ego: “they don’t know how much I’ve sacrificed, how much effort I’ve put into this, how much of my time I’ve given back to [fill in whatever excuse here].” Instead of checking their ego, they embrace it, and when you embrace ego, you cannot be an effective leader because you’ll always be looking out for you. Leadership, in comparison, is the very opposite of that mentality — other people come first.
One of the most formative books I’ve read to reiterate this point has been Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy. The book chronicles successful men and women throughout history who’ve either thrived or destroyed their lives, because of their embrace or rejection of ego.
Reading Holiday’s book, it became clear what happened to leadership in the 21st century — we’ve sacrificed virtue and humility on an altar of pride. What’s makes today’s dilemma even more baffling is that when I was in the Army, they gave us medals when we sacrificed our lives and safety for others. In our current business models, you get awards for sacrificing everyone else to make money or push pet policies.
I suppose that’s what makes this all so insidious. We don’t think pride is necessarily a damning character trait. Self promotion is a way to get our fifteen minutes of fame. If no one sees our accomplishments, then do they matter? But that’s the problem. Creating a better life for our neighbors, friends, and employees should be enough. But it’s not. We want the accolades and recognition which, if not checked, is a slow descent on a pathway to hell.
When we look to historical examples of leadership, we remember men and women who inspired others and did their best to put away pride, hypocrisy, indulgence, and selfishness. What we’ve found from their examples and our own culture is that wherever leadership is lacking, conditions always deteriorate to circumstances worse than the current environment. We’ve seen this happen first hand with the response to COVID-19 and the many crises that erupted in 2020.
If there is any hope for the future, it must come from leaders who seek not to improve their own bottom line, but who lift others in their rise to greatness. They won’t be the ones in the back giving orders or telling others what to do, but will be the ones on the front lines leading the charge.
With a little luck, they’ll be the ones to inspire a new era of competent leadership, and hopefully, teach their pupils an essential truth: leaders eat last.