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Leadership Lessons from the 4th

On the 4th of July I watched video of a speech delivered by one of my fellow Dwyer Group presidents, Mary Kennedy Thompson of when she was welcomed into the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2013.  In her speech she said, “To achieve great rewards you must go through great risk.”

Back to Mary in a minute … but it reminded me of what our forefathers went through in the 1770s during the American Revolution.  The battlefields were bloody with more than 50,000 Americans killed or wounded during that war. More than 50,000 went through great risk to achieve the rewards of independence.

The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 brave men ranging in age from 26 (Thomas Lynch Jr. & Edward Rutledge) to age 70 (Benjamin Franklin).  Most of the document was originally written by Thomas Jefferson, but a committee of five (Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Franklin penned the final version). The first person to sign, who also signed it with the largest signature, was John Hancock. (Thus, just sign your John Hancock on the line here)

The last line of the Declaration is one of the most impactful but not often remembered, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”  Think about it.

Pledging lives and honor.  There is great risk.

I watched Mary’s speech with great interest.  She was being honored for her involvement leading Vet Fran, a program sponsored by the International Franchise Association (IFA).  I served on that committee at one point but when Mary became chair she took the organization to new levels.  I believe it was her leadership that did it.  The committee, along with the IFA, had a goal of hiring 80,000 veterans either as franchisees or employees of franchisees over a two-year period during Operation Enduring Freedom.  The First Lady championed the cause of small business hiring 100,000 during that time. The IFA actually hired more than 150,000 vets.

Mary learned leadership on the knee of her father.  At age five, Mary decided she wanted to serve her country.  She became a Marine Captain before starting her own business.  In fact, her father, Colonel Jack Kennedy (retired), introduced Mary that night at the awards presentation in Atlanta.  Jack’s pride in the leader Mary had become was contagious.

I’ve met Jack a few times and love his stories.

Jack was a pilot in Vietnam.  First he flew single wing support planes and got shot down.  So he decided to be a helicopter pilot and eventually commanded the Blue Ghosts F Troop 8th Calvary division.  If you’ve ever seen “Apocalypse Now” you saw the Huey helicopters landing in the rice fields and picking up the wounded and saving their lives.  Jack was one of those pilots.

Meeting Jack piqued my curiosity—here’s what I found:

  • Approximately 12,000 U.S. helicopters flew in the Vietnam War. Approximately 5,000 were destroyed. That means 42 percent of the aircraft that spent time in the air crashed or were shot down … nearly three out of every seven that flew.
  • Approximately 40,000 US helicopter pilots flew in the Vietnam War. Approximately 2,202 pilots were killed, along with 2,704 crewmen. For those with their hands on the joystick that means 5.5 percent never made it back. Considering that the average pilot flew four times a week, he could expect that during his tour in Vietnam he was flying up against the Grim Reaper on 11.4 of his flights. That means that every 4.5 weeks he faced death. In soldier talk, his life expectancy was four and a half weeks … basically, a month.

Typically they landed under heavy fire and took back off under heavy fire.

The Blue Ghosts pilots are a very tight knit bunch. Two years ago, while Mary was in Washington, D.C., for an IFA event, she had the pleasure of joining her dad and some members of his team at an Irish Bar.  A fellow Blue Ghost’s remains had been recently found in Vietnam and brought back to the U.S. for a military burial at Arlington.  When that happens Jack and other members join their families giving that soldier the burial they deserve.

Mary heard great stories about her dad’s leadership that night.  One of his crew told of a time he was shot down and Jack came flying in, against orders, to save his life.  Today that soldier is a successful DDS with kids—all because Jack refused to let one of his soldiers die.  Talk about risking it all—just like our Declaration signers.

About that time, Mary asked her dad if he had earned a bronze star.  She found that actually he earned three bronze stars.  True leaders don’t have to tell others how good they are.

My favorite “Jack story” was one I heard this week.  Two solders, whose remains were comingled when retrieved from Vietnam, were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Later, a tooth found in Vietnam next to the mixed remains of two soldiers was positively identified as belonging to one of the soldiers.

Jack insisted that the soldier’s tooth, with a full uniform, be buried in his home town in rural Washington.  Jack knew this soldier should be given a proper military funeral complete with helicopters flying the “missing man formation” over this tiny, rural cemetery honoring this solder and his family.  Some thought Jack would never get approval to do this.  There was no stopping a leader like Jack.  He just went to the head of the armed services for approval—General Colin Powell.  That soldier’s brother wrote this week that the chopper blades were so loud they made the worms squirm.

That’s what leaders do.  They achieve their mission.

Last week Jack passed away—40 some years after he dodged death on so many occasions.   On Wednesday, July 9th, Colonel Jack Kennedy (retired) will be buried with full military honors at Ft. Bliss National Cemetery near El Paso.  All the remaining members of the Blue Ghost will be there.  That is what leaders inspire others to do.

Jack’s mission is complete. God Bless you, Jack, and all of other vets for all you did.  You risked it all to make sure of our independence, which started back in 1776, keeps us free.

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