Are you a second-mile leader?

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
In ancient times, it was routine for a soldier to demand a citizen carry his load for up to a Roman mile, a distance of 1,000 paces. This practice, formerly known as "impressment," was no easy task, considering a soldier's backpack routinely weighed upwards of 100 pounds. However, given the soldier was in a position of authority and the citizen was not, the citizen had no choice in the matter. Regardless of the weight of the pack, the burden had to be carried.

After all, impressment was the law.

The first mile was compulsory.

But, it did not take long for the person selected to carry out this duty to learn exactly how far that mile was. In fact, it became a matter of routine for citizens to drive stakes into the ground precisely one mile from their homes. This way, when a soldier demanded their load be carried, the citizen would walk exactly to the stake, set the pack down on the ground and be done with it. According to Roman law that was all they were required to do.

Nobody expected more.

The minimum requirement had been met.

It was time to move on.

But imagine a soldier's surprise when, at the obligatory mile marker, he reaches for his heavy pack but hears instead, "Please, let me carry it another mile." 

Sound farfetched? 

Not really. You see, what's little known is this ancient practice of impressment is what originally gave rise to the now familiar metaphor "to go the extra mile." That's right. This age-old authoritative, commanding, coercive and ultimately inconvenient practice actually provides the backdrop for one of the most compelling and paradoxical illustrations of selfless service we know today. And in the process, leaves us with a powerful picture of how we, too, can choose daily to make a positive difference in the lives of others, sometimes in big ways, but more often in small ways, even if it's inconvenient at times to do so.

Imagine ...

Most people I've encountered are very good at walking that first mile. We work hard to keep our commitments to those in our care despite the busyness that marks our days. We strive to deliver on those promises we've made to those who count on us for clarity, consistency and continuity. We do all we must to ensure expectations are met.

Like the citizens of Rome several thousand years ago, we willingly accept the need to carry our prescribed load down the path set before us. Moving from marker to marker, we do what we must to get the mission done.

But, how often along that leadership journey have we found ourselves asking at the end of the day, "Could I have done more?" "Is this truly the best I have to give?" "Could I be doing something to consistently make a positive difference in the lives of those whose path I'll cross today?"

If you've ever found yourself asking yourself such questions, then keep reading.

Promoting service over self-interest

As stated earlier, history and tradition remind us that when citizens were ordered to carry the Roman soldier's pack for the first mile, they did just as they were asked. In fact, it was expected that as they reached that familiar 1,000 pace stake, they would drop the burden, leaving it for another.

In their eyes, the job was complete. It was time to move on.

But, can you imagine the look on the soldier's face if, instead of hearing "my job here is done, I've finished my part," the citizen just kept walking.

No frown, no fret, no fanfare.

Unexpectedly, the citizen continues forward, doing more than was expected, not because they must, but because they can. The citizen's willingness to go the second-mile for the Roman soldier provided a compelling example of the value born of willfully promoting service over the pursuit of self-interest. 

Thus, the true lesson in this story of impressment, especially for those who are entrusted with the gift of leadership, is, whereas many in today's society may choose to pursue actions that satisfy their desire to exercise authority over others as a way to achieve their own objectives, second-mile leaders choose otherwise. Understanding true satisfaction in life is found only when we routinely exercise selflessness over selfishness. 

To make our highest aim the desire to contribute in meaningful ways to the lives of those entrusted to our care. 

Admittedly, for some this other-centric approach to leading may prove to be a most impractical philosophy, principally because it reminds us that every time we make the choice to extend ourselves beyond the "duty" of walking the obligatory mile, we must willfully set aside our own agendas in order to render more and better service to others than may be demanded of us. It's also an approach that history reveals has made a significant difference in the world around us.

Changing the world ... One leader at a time 

It's indisputable that our world has been changed by the likes of leaders willing to go the extra mile for others. Those who set out on a road less traveled in pursuit of far-reaching individual and organizational objectives. Leaders such as Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and General George Marshall, to name a few, who intentionally shaped conditions where people, no matter where they fit in the organizational chart, were provided opportunities to work in a manner that accentuated natural gifts while recognizing everyone's contributions as meaningful. Second-mile leaders willing to set aside the traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership in order to encourage an other-centric approach that inspires everyone to make their best contribution in a healthy, team-oriented environment -- an environment where selflessness routinely overpowers selfishness. 

Thus, regardless of where you may be called to lead, be it a military unit, multi-national corporation, non-profit group, government agency, for profit company or your home, workplace or worship space, when leaders at all levels, formal and informal, those with titles and those without, practice putting the needs of those around them first, then it's been my experience that the results are nothing short of astounding. For it's in environments where selflessness reigns supreme, obstacles are routinely transformed into opportunities; setbacks provide chances for comebacks; and change, both personally and corporately, become a welcome friend instead of a bothersome foe. 

Are you open to becoming a second-mile leader? Someone willing to help foster an environment where others are continually encouraged to grow; to stretch ever closer to the full measure of their potential in pursuit of both individual and organizational goals; someone willing to go the extra mile for those in their care, even its inconvenient to do so? If you are, then get ready because over the course of the next year, we'll explore together what it takes to transform the concept of second-mile leadership from a simple idea into meaningful action.

Action which will move you ever closer to becoming the kind of leader you want to be and those around you deserve to see.

Not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.