• Steve Berlack

Humility Before Teamwork Before Leadership

It will be 25 years this October that I first came brim-to-brim with Drill Sergeant Herndon of South Carolina. The fact that after all these years I still remember his name and where he's from says a lot about the man. He was about 5'10" tall and just about as wide...all muscle.

I didn't know he existed when I boarded the bus from Ft. Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, on my way to basic training in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I still remember the nervous laughter we shared as we rode towards what surely would be tough training. We cracked jokes, we smiled and laughed, and even the driver chimed in, as happy as a lark.

That changed when we saw the highway sign that read: Ft. Dix - 2 miles. After the smokers on the bus partook of several cigarettes and the bus partook of silence, we pulled up to the staging area. Our once happy and conciliatory driver shape-shifted into an ornery, gravel-voiced ogre, barking at us to "get the hell off my bus! MOVE!!!" That was nothing. As we all hauled it off the bus, we lined up as per instructions, and as fate would have it, I was lined up right in front Drill Sgt. Herndon. So guess what he did?

Without missing a beat, he did what Americans hate profoundly: he completely invaded my personal space. He placed the brim of his "brown round" right against my soon to be immaculately coiffed head, and spewed something about me being the sorriest example of human existence he'd ever seen. (I'm giving you the PG-rated version...you can guess the rest of what he said). He then did something hilarious - he called me "Willie." He never bothered to ask my name...but from then on I was "Willie." Period.

For some reason I thought this was the funniest thing I'd ever heard at the time, but I knew better than to laugh. Mamma didn't raise no fool. Thus began my first lesson: learn when to shut the (add expletive here, if you'd like) up, and quickly assess who is the lion and who is the antelope in any given situation.

Through the years, as I made my way upward through both the non-profit and public school system ladder, I thought about that moment often. I always wondered why some of my colleagues struggled so much with being part of a team. Why the organization would suffer in productivity because of a simple lack of communication, or a small missed detail. And I realized, after years of experience, that there are people out there who lack the fundamental skill taught so well by Drill Sergeant Herndon: humility.

I eventually came to the simple but life-altering conclusion that before one can be effective as a member of a team, s/he has to first be clear that it's okay to realize that sometimes you just ain't all that. That in turn allows one to place the needs of others ahead of one's own goals. Which in turn allows one to understand that being responsible for the success of the team is at least as important as being responsible for oneself, if not more. And that in turn leads one to see that before one can ever hope to effectively lead others, s/he must have mastered the concept of team. Too many of us never get that lesson, or place the elements of this equation in the wrong order.

I don't know if we all need to meet a Drill Sergeant Herndon, but we all need to learn this lesson if we're to become successful: as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and as a people.

What is YOUR humility meter reading these days?

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