Leaders, Check Your Mirrors

by Steven G. Foster, CMP | Managing Partner, Foster+Fathom


One of the best things about riding motorcycles is all the personal time you get “inside your head.” I often think about where I’ve been on my “professional ride,” remembering all the leaders and mentors who thought me worthy of investing their time, talent, and treasure to get me here.

No matter where we’re going—on a bike or in business—each one of us needs help along the way. None of us becomes successful by ourselves, and anyone who says different is just arrogantly wrong. I completely reject the “been there, done that, got here on my own” attitude we experience all the time in so-called leadership. If you’ve been “there,” someone pointed the way. And if you’ve done “that” someone taught you how.

One of my early career mentors was Col. Edwin C. “Ned” Humphreys, JR. USAF, Retired (1938-1969*), who I met in 1978 when he was publisher and editor of a small weekly newspaper in Mobile, Alabama. He gave me my first photojournalism job, knowing I had a lot to learn. Col. Ned was patient, but insistent that every employee push themselves and other hard. Failure was expected, but never accepted. If you owned your mistakes, learned the hard lesson, and made yourself and others better in the process, you survived. If not, you didn’t stay around very long.

His rules were simple:

  • Don’t ever show up unprepared.
  • If you don’t know how to do something, ask for help.
  • Remember this when it’s your turn to be in charge.

Col. Ned Humphreys was the definition of a “Full-Throttle Leader.” He always looked for ways to encourage his team. He helped each one of us get where we wanted to go. And he made sure everyone one of us arrived there, humble, grateful, and always prepared. That’s become my leadership mantra.

Today, whenever I hear someone in a leadership position spout their own achievements without acknowledging the contributions of others, I know that person doesn’t understand the first rule of leadership: Check your Mirrors!

Mirrors are one of the most important, yet lightly considered, parts of a motorcycle. Mirrors reflect a thing as it really is in a very clear and accurate way. On a bike, constantly scanning back and checking to make sure the pod is moving safely toward the destination is critical to the success of the ride. It also reminds whoever is out front of what is most important—the people trusting your leadership and backing you up.

Good “mirror awareness” is central to peak performance. It focuses leadership attention on the elements of a successful ride outside your immediate field of vision; namely, everyone who helped get you to the front of the pod and those currently following your lead. In a very real sense, the team reflects the leader.

One of my favorite movies is “Remember the Titans.” It’s based on the true story of Herman Boone, an African-American high school football coach and his first season at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Coach Boone arrived in 1971 just as the city consolidated all local students into one integrated high school. The entire community was forced to confront racism against the backdrop of the coming football season.

In one powerful scene, Julius, a talented African-American defensive player, and Gerry, a Caucasian defensive player who also is team captain, face off after a grueling series of three-a-day practices. They argue about leadership, unity, trust, and attitude:

Julius: Why should I give a hoot about you, huh? Or anybody else out there? Nobody plays! Yourself included! I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team?! No, No. What I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna look out for myself, and I’m gonna get mine.

Gerry: See, man? That’s the worst attitude I ever heard.

Julius: Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.

That scene is all about understanding how you got where you are and who helped get you there. Checking your mirrors answers the question, “What is the team reflecting back to me?” If you really want to measure your effectiveness as a leader, look at how it’s reflected by those on the ride with you.

Words, actions, and focus matter—especially in leadership.

*In 1947, Col. Ned Humphreys founded Bombardiers, Inc., an organization dedicated to collecting, recording and preserving the heritage and tradition of preserving the military profession of bombardiering. That collection now resides in the Office of Air Force History at Maxwell Air Force Base. Col. Humphreys died on April 22, 1996 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. An honorary plaque in his name is displayed at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.

IAAP works with the best trainers in the industry to ensure you have relevant, engaging, practical content at your fingertips. This blog is written by a speaker with a program in the IAAP Approved Programs database. Search by name or keyword to find their contact information and book them for your Branch or Region event.

Steven G. Foster, CMP, is Managing Partner of Foster+Fathom, a Leadership Training and TRIBE-Building Group in Dallas, TX. An award-winning speaker and writer; and an advocate for giving back to the communities where we live, work and meet; Steven helps individuals and organizations fuel their personal and professional lives with Passion, Power and Purpose; creates what Steven calls “Full-Throttle Leadership.” That’s not surprising, as the Harley-Davidson LIFE Member completed a 15,000-mile solo motorcycle ride around the perimeter of the United States in 2013 in support of the Boot Campaign, a national veteran’s organization where he serves as an Ambassador and Advisory Board Member.




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