When I graduated from high school, I decided to enlist in the US Air Force. The idea of earning money for college, building a career and seeing the world intrigued and excited me. My friends were surprised. My parents were supportive. There was just one small problem – I had to lose 20 pounds to meet the Air Force weight requirements.
So all summer long I ate hard boiled eggs and green salads. I ran around the neighborhood trying to jog off the weight. And slowly it did come off.
Then came the big day when my parents drove me to the Induction Center in Buffalo NY. I was eager to board the plane to basic training, but first there was a physical to face.
I sucked in my breath and stepped on the scale. The little old man with the bald head and wire rimmed glasses moved the weight slowly across the bar. I froze and watched as it settled in place just short of the goal. And my future fogged over as he said, “I’m sorry, young lady, but you don’t pass. You’re three pounds too heavy.”
I was devastated. Who knew how long I’d have to wait before I could join. Facing my siblings and friends would be embarrassing. We’d already said our good-byes.
So I waited for my recruiter, Terry Nichols, to find me as I sat in the hall pondering my fate. He was a tall, thin man who had been very encouraging during my Summer of Sacrifice. He was eager to hear my news, but could tell something was wrong.
I’m not going Terry,” I said with the tears starting to slip. “I still have three pounds to lose.”
He sat quietly for a minute, then jumped up and asked, “How bad do you want to join the Air Force?” He asked. I replied, “It’s the most important thing in my life.”
“Okay then, we’re not done yet.” And he opened the door to the stairwell and said, “Follow me.”
Together we ran up and down the stairs of the Federal Building in Buffalo NY until my legs were so wobbly I could hardly stand. He ran those stairs beside me, ahead of me and behind me urging me on. He could have just let me give up, but he didn’t.
After I could run no more, Terry got me scheduled for a re-weigh. The little old bald man with the glasses was surprised to see me back. I stepped up on that scale and watched again as he moved the weight across the bar. And it stopped at half-pound-too-heavy. I looked deep into that man’s eyes and prayed for a miracle.
He leaned over and whispered, “Young lady, I’m going to let you pass. But if you EVER tell ANYONE about this, I’ll haunt you till the day you die!”
So, I tell this story every chance I get and I haven’t been haunted yet. Here’s what I learned about leadership that day:
- Nothing motivates people more than the example others set and we need only take the first few steps to inspire them.
- Leaders can get just as much mileage by running beside their people as well as in front.
- The “scales” can only measure so much — one’s character is measured by commitment.
- If you want to join the team, you must be willing to do the hard work ahead of time.