As a young boy, I aspired to be a great Army General. Ask anyone that knew me growing up. One Christmas when I was about 7, I got some Army surplus gear for presents. Well, that was that. I spent my youth playing Army in the woods near my home, GI Joes, putting together tank and airplane models, reading military history and military biographies, and dreaming of the day that I would lead thousands in battle against an evil enemy. General George S. Patton was my military hero. In fact, he still is. When I entered the Army out of ROTC, becoming a General was my goal and single desire. To become a mighty leader of men became a part of my identity, my destiny and I determined that it was my path to “greatness.”
It wasn’t long before the universe presented me a gift in the form of a teacher. I was attending a course at Fort Leavenworth as a young Captain, still dreaming about putting stars on my uniform. My instructor, a wise Lieutenant Colonel and former tank battalion commander, asked me a question one morning as he walked by my desk. “So, John,” he asked, “What is your professional goal in the Army?” I replied confidently and probably a little arrogantly, “I want to be a General officer.” He nodded approvingly and then asked, “If you don’t make it to General and retire after 20 years as a Lieutenant Colonel, would you still consider yourself as having had a successful career?”
I was floored. The thought of “simply” making Lieutenant Colonel and retiring had never entered my mind. But my wise instructor’s question stopped me in my tracks as I considered the bigger implication. How did I define success or greatness…as an officer, a father, a brother, a son, a husband, a partner, a friend, and ultimately, a man? I started to really think about that question at a deeper level. Certainly the thousands of officers that reached 20 years or even less and either retired or moved on to other occupations were no less “great” than those that continued on to higher ranks or higher responsibilities. That was the real truth of it. I kind of knew that deep down and wondered is greatness or success defined by what we do and the rank we achieve, or rather, who we are, wherever we are?
I had another key breakthrough while attending Farra Allen’s wonderful course, the LifeWorks School of Coaching, two years ago in Atlanta. In a very emotional coaching session with Farra, he helped me process a key event from my past. In 1993 when I was a Captain and an Infantry Company Commander, one of my soldiers was killed by another soldier in a night time live fire accident as my unit was training and preparing to go to Somalia after the Rangers were killed as depicted in the movie, “Blackhawk Down.” The death of the soldier was tragic. He was young, 19, just married and his wife was pregnant with their first child. The soldier who mistakenly shot the victim was equally shaken, as was my entire company of 120 soldiers.
This accident had a huge impact on so many things. For me personally, it was devastating. Even though the circumstances of the accident were beyond my control, my confidence in my leadership, in my career, and in myself took a drastic turn downwards. I was in charge when a soldier was killed in a training accident. I was ultimately responsible for this young man’s life and had failed.
I tried to pick up the pieces of the loss and to continue in my military assignments over the years, but my passion for it was gone. How could I become the “great General” after losing a soldier in this manner? How could I ever become “great” at anything, ever? A young man, a father, a husband, a son, was dead. I spent years keeping this issue to myself, suppressing its impact and pain. Not only was a young man dead, but in my mind, my career, as I had dreamed it for decades, was dead also. It was over. There would be no stars or General for me now. I am sure the pain and the loss of this soldier on my psyche played out in other areas of my life as I made different choices.
As a result of my coaching session with Farra and with the help and love from my most wonderful classmates, I finally, through a great emotional release, let go of the pain from this incident in my past. A flood of emotions spilled out as I relived the incident and its impact. I at last let God assume responsibility for everything that had happened. He was in control of everything that night anyway. I arrived at a place where clarity, peace and spirit could reach me. A ray of light pierced the darkness and I realized that despite the accident and any other “reasons” I had concocted to call myself a failure, God taught me that I had been great all along. I learned that I didn’t have to be a General or any kind of rank to be a Great Man. I was a Great Man already. This realization released a heavy burden I had carried for a very, very long time.
Greatness is not defined by what you DO or accomplish in the way of life achievement, material things or influence. Greatness is defined by who you ARE as a person, as a human being, as a man or a woman. A General is no greater than a Private; a CEO is no greater than a janitor. Your very essence is greatness. It’s already in your DNA. Your greatness plays out as you demonstrate self-love and love for others. Stop looking for certain achievements or material things to indicate your success or greatness. Instead, look within and realize that you are already great. Strive to live great by living true to your values and beliefs, exercising hope and optimism despite negativity all around, and through acts of kindness, service, and blessing to others. If there is any measurement of greatness, those things make the label. But know this: You truly are GREAT already. Go forth and just BE THE GREAT YOU.
Oh, and by way, I will retire from the Army after 28 years of service on 1 Jan 2013…as a very successful Lieutenant Colonel. I have also happily discovered that I can still become a “General” but it means leading and influencing in a different way than I imagined. I AM A GREAT MAN. I know this now. 🙂