Leadership Spotlight

Lessons Learned

A conceptual stock image of a business man reflecting on the past.

As I reflect on my two decades of leadership in the military, government, and private sector, I cannot help but highlight two axioms that had the most impact: “…above all, do no harm!” and “Mission First, People Always!”

While serving as an emergency medical technician during college, I was exposed to the concept of “…above all, do no harm!” Although the Hippocratic Oath does not directly quote this idea, medical professionals often use it as an abbreviated version of the pledge. This concept resonated because it does not prohibit doing the difficult or painful. Rather, it serves as a reminder to pause before taking that step; ask if the action is necessary; evaluate whether it will do more good than harm; and, most important, weight the benefits versus the cost. Doctors often perform difficult or painful treatments and therapies. Anyone who has undergone surgery or physical therapy understands this well. But, we want our medical professionals to reflect on “…above all, do no harm!” during the decision-making process.

As leaders, we can take a lot from this concept. We have the responsibility to ensure our decisions and actions line up with “…above all, do no harm!” This does not suggest we shy away from asking those we lead to do hard, painful, or difficult things. It means we make sure we only require this kind of sacrifice when necessary for our people to improve or the organization to excel. Are the benefits worth the cost?

Sometimes, we can become distracted by our personal agenda, ego, self-interest, and desire for expediency. I think this is why Hippocrates foresaw the need to remind those making difficult decisions to examine the impact before taking action. Before you make major decisions, ask yourself a few questions.

  • How will this affect those I lead?
  • Could it do more harm than good?
  • Will this improve the organization or the individual?

We as leaders must ask our people to do hard things, but only for the right reasons. Those we lead will recognize the difference.

The U.S. Army taught me “Mission First, People Always!” When I first heard this axiom, I though it was an oxymoron—two competing agendas that would be forever at odds. However, an accomplished commander taught me its true meaning.

In the Army, the mission must be accomplished even when requiring the ultimate sacrifice. This describes the nature of military service and, all too often, law enforcement. As leaders, we ask our personnel to sacrifice time with their families, face physical and mental stress, and put themselves in harm’s way to complete a vital mission. If asking for this level of sacrifice, we must add the “People Always!” part of the equation.

Focusing on those we lead means being there when they need us. We must take the time to mentor those around us and invest in their careers and development, helping them succeed even when it means losing a high performer to promotion. And, most important, we help them when they struggle. Everyone has challenging times in their lives. If we do not support our people during these hardships, we will not gain their loyalty and trust when we need them to do the hard things. Showing genuine investment in the happiness and success of our personnel makes a critical difference in how we accomplish the mission.

The perspectives I have shared come from reflecting on my failures as well as my successes, but two decades of experience has taught me that leadership is more about caring for and supporting those we lead than it is about the leader. My challenge to you is to remember “…above all, do no harm!” and “Mission First, People Always!” as you guide your people to excellence.

Special thanks to Colonel Matthew Q. Dawson, U.S. Army, Field Artillery (retired) as the commander who taught me the true meaning of “Mission First, People Always!”

Supervisory Special Agent Nathaniel R. White, a cyberthreat leadership instructor in the Leadership Programs and Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at nrwhite@fbi.gov.

“…leadership is more about caring for and supporting those we lead than it is about the leader.”