Several days ago, someone reminded me about a book that I read awhile back - “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy” by Commander Michael Abrashoff. In the book, the commander describes how he turned around a poor performing ship and helped it become one of the best vessels in the U.S. Navy. My colleague reminded me of one particular story Abrashoff tells about his first week on the ship. The commander went to the weekly cookout on the ship, and he noticed that all the officers jumped to the front of the line (cutting in front of the enlisting personnel waiting patiently for their food). Abrashoff took his tray and went to the back of the line. His officers got their food and sat down to eat on the upper level, while the sailors sat down on the lower level. When they noticed the commander at the back of the line, one individual went down to speak with Abrashoff: "Captain, you don't understand. You go to the head of the line." Abrashoff responded, "That's okay. If we run out of food, I'll be the one to go without." Abrashoff waited patiently for his food and sat down with the sailors on the lower level. He did not scream at his officers or reprimand them for his actions. However, he noticed that the officers did not cut the line the following week, and they chose to sat with the enlisted men.
Every leader at all levels should read that story and consider whether they lead from the front or the back of the line. I would submit that far too many leaders choose to cut the line. Moreover, many leaders who witnessed the cutting in line would choose the verbal reprimand route. They would fail to recognize that actions often speak louder than words.