TIMELESS LEADERSHIP PRINCIPLES
A few weeks ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of
the Mississippi-Louisiana chapters of Phi Theta Kappa, the national community
college honor society which was held at Mississippi College in Clinton. The following
is a summary of my speech to the 250 students and advisors in attendance.
“My topic tonight is “leadership,” and I believe that a good leader leads by example. In brief, I want to give you seven ways, based on my own experiences, that you can be a good leader, both in Phi Theta Kappa and in life.
“First, you must realize that you are already “in the bonus.” A basketball team gets extra shots when the other team gets a certain number of fouls. They are considered to be “in the bonus.” It’s my contention that most of us are “in the bonus.” For whatever reason, luck, fate, hard work, intelligence, we have advantages over many of our peers. The question is, what are we going to do with that advantage? Are we helping others? Are we a friend in need? Are we making a difference? Is the world a better place for our having passed through it?
“We need to praise others. Although psychologists tell us that the name we love to hear the most is our own, be quick to praise others. A kind word goes a long way. I can remember almost every compliment I’ve ever received. My high school English teacher at Lumberton, Mrs. Joyce Smith, who later became Dean of Women at Pearl River Community College, once said to my class, “Benny is the only one in here who understands Shakespeare.” I didn’t, of course, but her off-hand comment changed my life.
“Have a sense of urgency about your goals. I was a parachutist in the military. Once during a low altitude jump, a young man wasn’t paying attention and landed atop my parachute. I could see the outline of his boots through the nylon canopy. We were both in extremis. Although many words passed through my mind, I screamed up at him; “Get off of it!” That’s what we need to do to achieve our goals in life: get off of it and go to work!
“Don’t Throw in the Towel Until You Bleed. I coached several boxing teams while I was
in the Navy. Some were pretty good. On one ship, for example, I had two “All Navy”
boxers and a baby-faced flyweight assassin who I hated to put in the ring against anyone.
Once we heaved to in the middle of the Pacific and had a “smoker” (boxing match) against
a shipload of Marines on a six month float out of Camp Pendleton, California. My guys
gave a good account of themselves, except that I had to “throw in the towel” and stop the
heavyweight bout. My fighter was cut badly and staggering around the ring. Later, he
came up to me and said, “Coach, Sir, with all due respect, if you ever stop one of my
fights again, I will knock you out.” I believed him, since he outweighed me at least 100
pounds, but I understood. He wanted to keep fighting as long as he was standing up.
So should we.
“Be a good citizen. In Vietnam, in a scene right out of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” I was on a small boat that ran over a native fisherman. He lost his right leg in the accident. We pulled him out of the water, and I had his head in my lap. He’s dying. I knew he was dying, and he knew he was dying. There’s something in his shirt pocket that he wants me to see. He’s in shock and his fingers don’t work, so I help him unbutton it. Do you know what was in it? A picture of his wife? Money? It was only his South Vietnamese government identification card. In his moment of death, he wanted to prove that he was a citizen. Most of us don’t think like that, and I think perhaps we should.
“Be of Service to Others. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to serve as a volunteer
auto mechanics instructor for some prisoners in a local county jail. On the last day of the
program, one of the prisoners, a young man from the coast, wanted to give me a present but
not having anything, he found a sheet of paper and, from memory, wrote the following
Scripture verse and pressed it in my hand: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby
some have entertained angels unawares. Remember them that are in bonds, and them which
suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body” (Hebrews 13, 2,3). Looking back,
that greasy piece of paper meant more to me than any present I could have received.
“Finally, and I know this is not a religious forum, but we need to keep God in our lives. I was once on a ship in the Indian Ocean and we were looking for a sailor who had fallen overboard three days earlier. The waves were extremely high and I figured, at best, we were looking for a body. But, lo and behold, there he was: naked, covered with jellyfish, sunburned, and treading water like crazy. When things calmed down, I asked him, “How did you ever manage to tread water for three days?” His answer was simple: “I turned my life over to God.”
I believe if you practice these simple principles, you will be well on your way to being a great leader, whatever your age.” Benny J. Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. His website is