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Lead, follow, or get out of the way

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard before. The phrase has been attributed over time to Thomas Paine, General George Patton and even Lee Iacocca, but whoever it was that said it, I would hazard the guess that it was someone with a strong personality, a sense of mission and the need to get something very important done.

It sounds a bit like a rebellion phrase, but I believe that it is in fact a leadership phrase -- the kind of thing that is said by a person who not only has a strong personality but the confidence to put their intentions into action. It could only be effectively stated by someone who sees a situation that needs immediate action and knows that if that action is not executed quickly and with a sense of reckless abandon that the consequences of doing nothing could be far worse.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way. It’s a demanding phrase, a logjam-breaking phrase, a call to action, and it’s also not always popular because it tells others at a peer level, or even a superior rank, that they are the problem. You don’t tell subordinates to lead, follow, or get out of the way. It is more likely something said by one general to other generals … or a business leader to his executives … or that a legislature tells a governor.

It is not only a statement of intent but it is a rebuke to those who had the opportunity to fix something and have chosen not to. And sometimes it just takes one person to launch the change with the attitude, the authority and the wherewithal to not only say to others that they should lead, or follow, or just get out of the way but that in the absence of meaningful action by the listeners that the speaker will do it in their stead.

Victor Davis Hanson is an American scholar, historian, author, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. I feel like I gain points on my IQ every time I listen to him provide commentary on world events. Hanson wrote a book called “The Savior Generals.”

The book is a case study on five historic generals who Hanson believes stepped into a losing military campaign and by sheer force of their will, by their ability to plan, strategize, cajole, convince, and execute they turned the tide. He goes so far as to opine that these particular generals were the sole catalyst for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But those same generals were also not always popular despite having done so.

Hanson said the book was designed to show “how contrarian and unpopular generals have often saved the day, defying the odds, …. to win a campaign and sometimes an entire war.” His review covered over 2,600 years and detailed the events of Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway and Petraeus. Hanson says that the five generals in his book all had common traits: “They all enjoyed their reputations for bucking conventional wisdom; they were all highly literate; they all spoke well and they all led by example.”

Each one of those savior generals was willing and able to blaze ahead, despite the odds and despite opposition from their own allies because they knew that without victory there would be a cataclysmic downfall.

One book review that I read on Hanson’s book pointed out that despite each of them being the right man for the right time, they did not go on to be lauded and promoted forward without difficulty. It is said that Themistocles was subjected to trumped-up charges of corruption; Belisarius lost his marriage and fell out of favor with the emperor; Sherman was branded by many as a terrorist because he had burned his way to the sea and had trouble getting along with others; Ridgeway was forced to resign as chief of staff by President Eisenhower; and Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA due to an extra-marital affair. But in Hanson’s analysis, each of these five generals was able to in effect say to their peers and authorities: lead, follow, or get out of the way.

What does it take to be that person? And historically speaking, who else has stood up and done what needed to be done at just the right time for just the right reasons with just the right plan and with the moxie to tell those around him to lead, follow or get out of the way?

A few years back I read the great book “1776” by David McCullough. It is an awesome read and gave me much greater insight into the depth and breadth of what actually had to happen for the original 13 colonies to become the future United States of America. But one thing struck me that I had never realized until I read it was that General Washington had to almost beg the Continental Congress to stay the course to be sure there were other patriots and heroes of the Revolution.

But I had always envisioned the Continental Congress as those great men who not only signed the Declaration of Independence but also men who were unwavering and steady and without doubt. Not so. They apparently had some stalwarts in the bunch, but they also struggled and debated and some wavered.

But Washington saw a way forward and wrote to Congress, urging them to stay in the fight. What if it had been another man in charge of the Continental Army? Similar to Hanson’s work on “The Savior Generals,” it is possible that one man can actually make a difference.

I believe that the United States - this country that I love - and even the great state of Alabama, are at a crucial point in history. Social upheaval is only part of it. We are now in the place where we have to ask the question: What kind of nation do we want to be?

Should the average person believe that government is there for them, or will we be a nation in which the government presses down its influence against any who questions it?

Are we a nation that values the sanctity of life?

Are we a nation that appreciates the simple fact that a man is a man and a woman is a woman and that determination comes to its final conclusion in the womb and not in the mind of the person?

Are we a nation that stands for freedom and liberty and one which our allies know will have their back?

Are we a nation that understands the value of the dollar and that fiscal responsibility and big spending are not equally yoked concepts?

The only way that I believe that we are going to win this fight as conservatives is if we stay the course and elect the kind of people to represent us who will say to those around them that they can lead, follow, or get out of the way.

One of those men who was featured in Victor Davis Hanson’s book was General Matthew Ridgway. Over time, history began to take more note of his efforts and successes in WWII, and despite his falling out with Eisenhower after the war, many years later, President Ronald Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 12, 1986. While speaking at the presentation ceremony, Reagan said, “Heroes come when they’re needed; great men step forward when courage seems in short supply,”

We are in that time. We need great men to step forward because right now it seems that courage is in short supply. As both a state and a nation, we need some brassy leadership to step into the fray and say to those who are flagging and ducking for cover that they need to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts Rightside Radio M-F 2-5 pm on WVNN. His column appears every Monday in 1819 News. To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement go to The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to

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