In November, I had the privilege to hear Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, a Meal of Honor recipient, speak at UNCW as part of its Leadership Lecture Series. I’d like to thank UNCW for the experience, as this was the first time I have been in the presence of a Medal of Honor recipient.
For those of you who may not know, the Medal of Honor is the highest military honor presented by the president of the United States on behalf of Congress to an individual in the military for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The first medal was awarded in 1861 during the Civil War. There have been a total of 3,512 awarded since then. Since 1941, at least half have been awarded posthumously. Obviously, receiving a Medal of Honor is a very big deal.
Sgt. Petry’s presentation began with a short video reenactment of the events that occurred that led to his award. There were comments by his fellow soldiers who were there that day. The video also showed Petry being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama. The essence of the event was that Petry and his fellow soldiers were on a mission and sustained fire. Petry was shot in both his calves, and other individuals were killed. Petry and others were waiting to be extracted and they sustained additional fire. A grenade was thrown by the enemy and landed among Petry and several fellow soldiers. In training, soldiers are taught to roll away from a grenade. Petry rolled toward the grenade, picked it up and attempted to throw it away from himself and his fellow soldiers. The grenade exploded as it left his hand. His right hand was blown off in the process. Petry put a tourniquet on his own wrist and waited to be extracted. After a long recovery period, Petry returned to active duty.
So what did I learn about leadership from listening to Sgt. Petry? After he was introduced to a standing ovation, Petry began to speak. You knew based on his first words that he was a plain-spoken guy. Next the video was played, and it did a great job of describing his very heroic actions.
It was hard to believe that the person who was lauded in the video was the same man who had just spoken. Petry gives you the impression that he’s a regular guy who just wanted to do the right thing. His fellow soldiers commented on Petry’s bravery. Petry, in his remarks, almost apologetically talked about his love for his fellow soldiers. He talked about his obligation to them and to getting them home safely. He talked about not wanting to disappoint their friends and families by not protecting them. His humility just screamed out to me.
In his prepared remarks he talked about growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He said he was not a very good student. He then went on to describe intercepting one of his report cards before his parents saw it. He talked about opening the envelope and seeing his name and the grades of F, F, F ,F, D and F. He didn’t like to be characterized that way. That day he made a conscious decision to change some things in his life. He was able to change the school he attended. He also changed his friends, and although he did not say so directly, his behavior. When he graduated from high school he received the “Bootstrap Award.” So here is a guy who cares about how he sees himself and how others see him, and takes steps to make that what he demonstrates is something that everyone views with pride.
His initial failure as a student or losing his hand in combat could have been seen as overwhelming obstacles to future success. Petry saw both situations as opportunities to overcome challenges and obstacles, rather than as problems to bemoan or to use as excuses.
The other things that Petry talked about regarding leadership I have seen and read in books. To hear Petry personalize these ideas made them real and special.
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