The Leader’s Code

How good leaders lead.

A couple weeks ago I found myself in my home office looking through dusty old books on political theory.  Eventually I made my way to The Defender of Peace by Marsilio de Padua, a political tract written in 1324.  This isn’t an essay about Marsilio, but when I was re-reading the Defender of Peace I came across a great deal of hand-written notes in the margins.  The thoughts I’d formed that first time I had read Marsilio’s ideas on civil society.

I am a lifelong margin scratcher.  There is hardly a book I own in which I haven’t written commentary.  I’m not sure why but I started to go through a lot of books in my office – looking for my notes that I had written (to whom?).  It was during that mining operation that I came across this, written in my own hand, squeezed in the margin of a book:

“The Leader’s Code!  How good leaders lead”

My notes were scrawled (almost illegibly) in pencil and then an arrow pointed to a circled phrase.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.    

“Yes,” I said firmly, “that IS the leader’s code.”


Cracking the Leader’s Code:


A leader should never put his own desires ahead of the mission, the team, or other team members.  In other words, a leader should strive to have relationships built on mutual trust with his boss, his peers, and his subordinates.

You may ask, but isn’t ambition critical to the success of any individual and for that matter any group or nation?

Yes.  But the key point in the Leader’s Code is the modifying term.  The problem is not ambition but rather selfish ambition.

A leader should never engage in selfish ambition.  In my time in the military I have seen selfish ambition everywhere.  Selfish ambition is characterized by a boss who adopts this attitude:

“I am going to get ahead no matter how hard I have to make you work.”

These are the leaders who take credit from subordinates, undermine peers, or spend ridiculous amounts of time lobbying their boss for recognition or “the next great position” in the organization.

Healthy ambition is when someone says “I’m going to work my hardest to achieve a goal.”  Selfish ambition states “no matter what happens I better get ahead because I am so special.”


Closely related to selfish ambition is conceit.  The dictionary describes conceit as an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.  In other words, the leader who operates from a position of conceit is the last guy you want to work for.

The conceited leader thinks that he has such remarkable ability that he doesn’t really need input from the little people.  Sure, he’ll allow you to voice an opinion in a staff meeting because he read in a leadership book one time that he should let his subordinates feel empowered; but he has no real intention of listening to you because he is much smarter than you.  How do you think he got this job?  He’s supernaturally talented, that’s how!

The self-importance of the conceited leader will also be evident.  The conceited leader is always acutely aware of where he is sitting at the conference table (why am I not closer to the boss?); he is singularly focused on who talks the longest to the boss at a dinner party.

People who work for the conceited leader will know what kind of pens he likes, what soda he drinks, and they will run themselves ragged trying to make sure everything is just right.  In other words, the conceited leader is a boorish, self-important snob.  He expects to fly first class, have someone clean up after him, and he’ll need lots of minions around tending to his needs.  He also has a tendency to make decisions based on what is good for him rather than the team.

Sadly, conceited leaders seem to be everywhere.


Humility comes from a Latin word that carries a few meanings.  Obviously, humility means humble but it also connotes “from the earth” or “grounded.”   To put that simpler, humility for a leader means: remember where you came from.

I’ve been blessed to hold many leadership jobs in my time in the military – but I started out 29 years ago as a Private.  I’ve peeled potatoes; I’ve cleaned toilets.  At other times in my life, I’ve been flat broke.  I’ve been lonely and I’ve been hopeless.  When I look at my military career, I am very thankful for the success I have had.  If someone had told me when I was a Private that someday I would be a Lieutenant Colonel and a Squadron Commander, I would not have believed it.  I try really hard to never forget where I came from; because when I was a nobody, I still thought I was a somebody.

And yet, I look around the military and more often than not I run into senior leaders who have literally forgotten where they came from. There are an awful lot of senior officers who think the reason they got where they are is because they are special.  These officers have forgotten where they came from; they forget the breaks they got – or the help they received.   They have no time for the “little people;” no respect for the janitor, and no patience for the mistakes made by lieutenants.  I’ve heard Colonels say outrageous things like “the enlisted force can’t problem solve; we need the officers to do that.”


Only when you remember where you came from can you fully implement the principle of counting “others as more important than yourselves.”  No, I am not talking about how you let the troops eat before you do at the squadron Thanksgiving meal.

I am talking about adopting a real attitude of becoming a servant-leader.  One who understands that the organization will meets its goals only when you view each individual as a person – not as a cog in a machine.  The people who work for you have real hopes.  They have real desires and they want to live a full life where they are able to use their talents at work to achieve something great.  Sometimes your subordinates will need encouragement, correction, help, or praise.  No matter what they need, they will always deserve your respect.  They will always deserve to be treated as an individual.

I wish I could tell you that there are many leaders who are servant-leaders, but that is simply not the case.  What I have typically witnessed is the exact opposite – leaders who NEVER count others as more important than themselves.  These are the Leaders who rarely listen to their subordinates and who hate disagreement.  These are the leaders who threaten their subordinates.  These are the leaders who deny opportunity to subordinates because it would be an inconvenience to the boss.


America was founded by people who understood the Leader’s Code.  So, here’s my challenge to leaders:  This week try to implement a little bit of the Leader’s Code.  I often wonder how great the USAF could be with a strong adherence to the Leader’s Code. How great could our schools be if guided by the Leader’s Code?  How good and decent would law enforcement be if our police officers lived the Leader’s Code?  Dare I dream of a government committed to the Leader’s Code?

This week, don’t spend any time working on your next job; don’t angle on how you are going to get recognized by your boss.  Instead, talk to your subordinates.  Get to know the troops, and help them to identify and achieve their goals.

What you will find is this – there is an incredible amount of talent on your team.

Then it won’t be so hard to be humble.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

There are probably some of you who recognize “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Yes – it is from the Bible – Philippians chapter 2, verse 3. 

Yup, I scratch in the margins of my Bible all the time.

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