An Example to Follow

In 1987, during the war between Iraq and Iran, the Iranians started dropping mines into the waters of the Persian Gulf. The American response was to direct the USS Guadalcanal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf with the Navy minesweeping helicopters on board. Our mission was to lead the oil tankers and supply ships through the Gulf so that the mines would be found before any of the ships would hit them. I was on the USS Guadalcanal as the Aviation Supply Officer with the deployed Marines helicopter squadron and a small contingency of Marines and helicopters would go to the Gulf as part of the Special Task Force deployed for this dangerous mission. When we arrived at the port in Bahrain to obtain our assessment brief, one of the oil tankers that had hit a mine was sitting in full view – a big hole in the front of the ship demonstrated the threat we were facing. Upon setting sail, I met with my team comprised of Marines, sailors from the minesweeping squadron, and sailors assigned to the ship’s company. The first question they wanted to know was if we hit a mine, where would it explode. Since our office spaces were in the nose of the ship, I knew they had seen the damage to the oil tanker and they knew, as I knew, that our workspaces were in the blast area. I had to find a way to assure them that we needed to focus on our mission and not on the “what ifs”. My solution was simple.

“Gentlemen, I saw the oil tanker and the damage to the front of the ship. I will not lie to you and say our spaces are not at risk.” I began. “But, I can also assure you that the Navy/Marine Corps team on board this vessel constitutes the finest minesweeping capabilities in the free world today. Therefore, to prove to you I have no fear that our team will find a mine before our ship can hit one, I will remain in our workspaces from this moment on until you all decide I can resume a normal schedule. That means I will only leave these spaces for required meetings, to use the head (bathroom for civilians), and retrieve my meals which I will eat right here at my desk. I will live in these spaces, day and night, until you decide I can leave. Any questions?”

As you can imagine, they did not expect this as my answer to their question. So, for two full days, I lived in the spaces. Finally on day three, as we met for our nightly turnover meeting, they all agreed that I had proven my point and I could resume a normal routine. I then looked at them and told them this simple truth;

You have seen just how dedicated I am to you. So let me say this. Should we hit a mine and our spaces are damaged, if you survive, do not give up. I am coming to get you. As I demonstrated, nothing, and I mean nothing, will keep me from protecting my people. You must hang on – I will be there!

I am proud that each Marine and sailor was able to go home safe and sound to their loved ones. And hopefully, they learned the importance of setting a good example for their people. If you are going to be a leader that people will follow, set the example of what you expect. Here are some things you should always remember.

  • Show your employees that you are willing to do the same thing you ask of them. I walk around my current workspace and every time I see trash on the floor or something out of place, I stop and fix it. I don’t call for the cleaning person – I am more than capable of picking up trash. It is a little thing, but it says we are all responsible for our workspace.
  • Be professional in your personal appearance. Wear your work attire with pride. Ensure your appearance matches your level of leadership. There is some truth in the saying, dress for success so do it. Your people will quickly see that you value a professional appearance and will want to follow your lead.
  • Maintain an optimistic outlook. The more difficult the situation is, the better your chance to display an attitude of calmness and confidence. This is why I was willing to sit at my desk for as long as it took to get my team to know I would keep them safe in the Gulf. By showing confidence in our Navy/Marine Corps team, they overcame their fear of the unknown.
  • Conduct yourself so that your personal habits are not open to criticism. Your moral and ethical behavior is important. Always remember that what you say is not as important as what you do. If your actions do not match your words, you will quickly lose the respect of your team.
  • Exercise, initiate and promote the spirit of initiative in your employees. I have become the point of contact for anything that falls outside the norm because, as I heard, “That’s why I call Len. He finds a way to fix the problem.” My hope is that my example will be seen and emulated by those around me.
  • Avoid showing favoritism to any member of your team. Showing favoritism to one person on your team is the quickest way to begin the process of losing the respect of your team members. You do not have a favorite child – don’t have a favorite team member.
  • By your performance, people should know that you are the best person for the position you hold. When someone asks you how you got your job, the look on their face should indicate that they wish to know about your experience, how you heard about the job, the application and the interview process. You do not want them to be looking at you like you have two heads and that they are pretty sure you must be related to the owner because they would never hire someone like you. Be professional at all times.
  • Delegate authority and avoid over-supervision in order to develop leadership among your team. I once worked for a small company where the owner had to approve every decision being made. Unfortunately, he did not make himself readily available to the staff to enable them to get the necessary guidance and approval. So, deadlines were never met and on some days, nothing could be accomplished because no one had the approval to move forward. The company went under and the owner blamed the staff and not the fact he was the obstacle to success.

Finally, let me close with part two of the minesweeping mission. As we turned over the minesweeping helicopters to the USS New Orleans when our time on station was completed, the Aviation Storekeeper First Class Petty office from the minesweepers transferred to the new ship in the first wave of people. He did so because I wanted him to make sure he inspected the working spaces, sleeping spaces, and mess decks so he could make sure his people had the essentials upon arrival. Just before our ship set sail for home, I heard an announcement over the ship’s intercom – the captain of the ship was letting everyone know that a helicopter was about to land and my division needed to get them the part they needed as quickly as possible so we could set sail for home. I staged my people ready to meet the demand as quickly as possible. Then I saw the Petty Officer casually walking toward our space. I asked him what he needs and he said he needed to speak to me. Here is what he said. Lieutenant, I have spent 11 years in the Navy. In the 4 months, I have served with you, I have learned more about my job and about leadership than in all the previous years. I just could not leave without saying thank you. Trying not to beam with too much pride that he had held up a United States warship for the sole purpose of saying thank you, I wrapped up an empty box so it looked like he had a part under his arm and sent him on his way to lead his team.

If you are going to change the life of those around you, remember, they will be watching you. Set the example.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Len, congratulations for the article and the exemplary behavior that accompanied, and continued to accompany, your lifestyle.
    The leader must be an example: nothing in the world creates and sustains the credibility of a leader more of his actions. Perhaps the best way to be an exemplary leader is to follow their advice himself. Do not ask others to do things that he himself is not willing to do. If an exemplary leadership is impossible without the co-presence, initiative and cooperation of the follower it is also true that the exemplary leadership contains inside an essential ingredient: the respect of those who has faced.
    Exemplary leader is one who is willing to exceed and breakthrough limitations and raise the bar of excellence for the entire organization.

    • Aldo – Thank you for adding depth to this important discussion. Your wisdom continues to shine.

  2. I love this article – your parting words tell me that you live out every one of the points you wrote about. You set the example. I think what meant the most to me, as my grandson heads to Kuwait in a few weeks is your assurance, “I am proud that each Marine and sailor was able to go home safe and sound to their loved ones.” I would work for you any day!

    • Jane – Your kind words have touched my heart. Every person who takes up the mantle of leadership must remember that your example will be influencing the perception of those watching you as to what a good or a bad leader looks like. That is why I made sure that I lived the lessons learned. Again, thank you so much.

    • Danny – Thanks for reminding me of the importance of laying in bed at the position of attention and saying our “prayers” of “Goodnight Chesty…” Only another leatherneck would appreciate that. 🙂