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What The American Flag Taught Me About Leadership

As a boy at my fathers’ feet I learned important lessons about the American flag that shaped my habits and behaviors concerning leadership.

I grew up in the Midwest. My father flew the American flag every day at our house. In fact, my dad was so proud to be an American that he installed a flagpole in our front yard. This flagpole wasn’t small. It was the kind of pole that you would see at a public library or school.

Photo: Ken Gosnell, CEO and Servant Leader of CXP (CEO Experience); Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Ken Gosnell, CEO and Servant Leader of CXP (CEO Experience); Source: Courtesy Photo

For as long as I can remember, I watched my dad raise the flag each morning and bring it down each night. Part of my upbringing embraced the importance of the flag and all that it represents.

Regardless of race or political persuasion, a lot of Americans see the U.S. flag as a hopeful and beautiful symbol, even in times of national division when it has different meanings for different people.

Today, the flag is being used to bring much-needed acknowledgment of lingering racial division in America. That is an important conversation, and I am in support of raising awareness so we can continue to create a more perfect union. I hope all leaders will reflect and consider how the current social climate has intensified the anguish of racial tension and division as they consider what the American flag means to them.

As a boy at my fathers’ feet I learned important lessons about the flag that shaped my habits and behaviors concerning leadership.

Truth be told, the American flag taught me a lot about leadership.


1. Finish tasks each night

The U.S. Flag Code formalizes and unifies the traditional ways in which we respect the flag, with specific instructions on how the flag is not to be used. Unless the flag is properly lighted it should be taken down at dusk each day.

This principle prompts leaders to remember they should finish tasks each day. Great leaders don’t put off tasks, they get them done and move on. Parkinson’s Law states that our projects and tasks expand to the time that we give them. Finishing tasks before sunset is a great leadership habit to practice.

Leadership Question: Have you developed the bad habit of giving tasks and projects longer timelines than needed?


2. Don’t let important balls drop

According to U.S. Flag Code, “The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground…” The flag should be respected, and therefore, when it is being taken down, particular attention is given to ensure the flag never touches the ground.

Leaders must heed this principle and acknowledge that some deliverables are so important to an organization they simply cannot be dropped. As a leader, it’s your role to convey the essentiality of tasks to your teams so everyone can focus their attention on completion.

Leadership Question: What balls have been dropping in your company that are essential to the success of the organization?


3. Know the proper order of things

U.S. Flag Code insists the American flag should always be flown above the state or local flags (i.e., flown higher than lesser flags.)

“No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea.” And, “No person shall display … any other national or international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior prominence or honor to, or in place of, the flag of the United States at any place within the United States or any Territory or possession thereof.”

The protocol of flying the American flag alongside other flags taught me to know the proper order of things. Many leaders hurt their leadership because they don’t know where to focus or in what order to accomplish tasks. Steven Covey used this principle in his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” when he taught the principle “First Things First.” Leaders should always know the proper order of things.

Leadership Question: Does your team know the order of priorities you have shared as their leader?


4. Focus your attention

My father taught me to face the flag and stand at attention with my right hand over my heart when the National Anthem was sung. This principle is being challenged today, but it taught me about the focus of attention.

Some things are so important that a leader must give all of their attention to it. This is an important leadership lesson. Many leaders injure their leadership because they lack focus and attention. Leaders become less effective when they try to do too many things at once.

Leadership Question: Do you give the most important tasks all of your attention and focus?


I am glad my father taught me these principles each day as I handled the American Flag. I needed these principles in my life. They were bigger than the flag. They have become essential for life. I would hope all leaders know and live these principles as they have the power to build better leaders in all areas of life.


Ken Gosnell is the CEO and Servant Leader of CEO Experience (CXP). His company serves CEOS and leaders by helping them to have great experiences that both transform them and their organizations that enable to go further faster. Ken is the publisher of the CXP CEO Executive Guide that is designed to help leaders learn faster by encouraging to give themselves a monthly learning retreat. His monthly CEO retreats have helped thousands of CEOs and their leadership teams to enhance strategic, operational, and people accomplishments. He is an author, keynote speaker, executive coach, and strategic partner with CEOs and successful business leaders. Connect with @ken_gosnell on Twitter. 


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