At the end of Heartbreak Ridge, GSG Highway turns to CPL Jones and says something like “They don’t need me anymore, besides they got you now.” This is truly an impressive quote on many levels. Many would argue that the main character in this movie is an not an ideal mentor or role model, but others would argue he is the very definition of as a Level 5 Leader. One of the benefits of this discussion and analysis is that the Gunny is a fictional character and not a real person, but the military is full of commissioned and non-commissioned officers who are less than perfect yet meet the definition of a Level 5 Leader. This article seeks to identify why the military successfully develops so many leaders who meet this definition.
Before looking at the reasons the military generates so many great leaders, a review of Level 5 Leadership in in order. At least two authors have discussed five levels of leadership, Jim Collins and John Maxwell. Collins’ five levels appear to receive the most attention, but a comparison between both author’s writings demonstrate similar ideas for each level.
Level 5 Leaders build enduring greatness by placing the needs of the organization above their own. They blend humility with personal will-power influencing others to accomplish great things. They do the things that need doing establishing demanding standards. They do not expect perfection but rather demand excellence & continuous improvement. They bask in the reflected glory of the spotlight of success focused on those they lead. They create sustainable leadership development programs ensuring organizational success long after they leave. Level 5 Leaders are well respected attracting others who want to follow them.
While purely fictional, the actions of Gunny Highway are exaggerated but typical of many military leaders. They are humble about their achievements by acknowledging the fact they could have only achieved success through the efforts of their followers. They set high standards and expect others to meet them not occasionally, but every day. They accomplish those things that need doing whether pleasant or distasteful. They demand their followers achieve excellence and continuously improve their performance. They provide junior leaders opportunities to lead, allowing them to make mistakes, hold them accountable and permit them to try again until they succeed. These actions set an example for those future leaders to follow when promoted.
Gunny Highway’s first impression of Jones and the other members of the platoon was unfavorable. He established high standards and through his will-power influenced them to achieve those standards and succeed. The platoon went from being the laughing stock of the post to a well-respected organization capable of meeting any challenge presented. He developed other leaders such as Jones and his Lieutenant who tripped when presented problems, but learned the value of adapting, improvising and overcoming to achieve success.
At the end of the day, it was Highway knew his platoon was not prepared. Previous leaders allowed them to slack off becoming regarded as a bunch of out-of-control misfits who could never succeed let alone achieve excellence. Highway knew one day their lives could be at stake and pushed them to achieve and exceed military standards. After an emergency deployment to rescue stranded Americans it was Highway’s platoon on the top of the hill after enduring several battles and receiving the accolades of their commander. In true Level 5 fashion, Gunny denied having accomplished much, but rather thrust his followers into the spotlight. He was humble, demonstrated tremendous will-power, set high standards, developed others, expected continuous improvement from previous excellent results and set up his unit for continued greatness for years after his retirement. Who knows, in 20 years Gunny Jones could be the one leading the charge, achieving success and passing the glory onto a well-mentored Corporal when the Commanding General teleports to that forward position. Hooah!