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Great leaders honor their flag

Great leaders honor their “flag” by using it constantly as a potent symbol to remind associates of what they can become, not just what they do.

4 min read


Flag bearer


I have a confession: I love war movies.

Maybe it is nostalgia overload from my years as an infantry commander of a reconnaissance unit in heavy combat. My favorite war movies are “Glory,” “The Patriot,” “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan.” And I just watched another great one, “Hacksaw Ridge.” They all feature magnificent scenes of raw courage and unwavering dedication to a gallant mission. One particular feature is the power of the flag. When the flag carrier is killed, someone else always picks it up and carries it.

Flags are to battles what brands and missions are to companies. They symbolize an aspiration, they surface deep pride, and they instill an abiding commitment to a dream. Flags, whether the kind that unfurls over the heads of soldiers or the type that hang on board room and break room walls, convey the identity of the organization, country, or brigade. Great leaders honor their “flag” by using it constantly as a potent symbol to remind associates of what they can become, not just what they do. Honoring it means being steadfast in the headlong and noble pursuit that the “flag” represents.


Photo via Stew Leonard’s

Stew Leonard’s is one of the country’s most famous dairy and grocery stores. Located in several cities in Connecticut and New York, it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest sales per square foot of any grocery in the world.

Shortly after Stew Leonard Sr. passed day-to-day leadership to Stew Leonard Jr., renowned Harvard Business Schoolprofessor Michael Porter was invited to lead a strategic planning meeting. Since it was Junior’s first planning session as CEO, Stew Sr. decided not to attend. Just as the meeting was about to begin, Stew Sr. called to the meeting room to report that a customer had complained the grapes tasted flat.

“Oh, Dad,” exclaimed Stew Jr. “I am so glad you called. Dr. Porter is here to start our strategic planning meeting. Let me put you on the speakerphone so you can give us all your input on your vision for our company.”

There was a long silence on the speakerphone. Then Stew Sr. spoke a single sentence that said it all: “A customer complained that the grapes tasted flat.”

Paraphrasing a quote found on the wall of an old church in Italy, “Vision without action is daydreaming, but action without vision is random activity.”

Flag-honoring leaders spend time conceptualizing the vision, communicating that vision, and acting in ways that both reflect and reinforce that vision. When theme park builders suggested to Walt Disney that he take a more cost-effective route and build the Sleeping Beauty castle last, he balked. “The Sleeping Beauty castle is the centerpiece and symbol of what Disneyland is all about. It must be built first.”

“Desperados Waiting for a Train” is a song made famous by the Highwayman, a singing group made up of country music giants Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the late Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. The song title perfectly captures the sense of eagerness and anticipation that flag-honoring leaders help create.

It is not that these leaders are shoot-from-the-hip, impulsive types; it is more about their restless and excited communication of the journey ahead. And that leadership fervor helps inspire everyone to plant their flag on an important milestone ahead.


Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker on innovative service and customer loyalty. He’s also authored several best-selling books, with his newest book being “Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service that Sparkles.” He can be reached at

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