I recently heard a wizened First Sergeant speak at his retirement. “When I look at this formation, I see myself,” he said slowly, as he fought back emotion. The words were deep and carry a message both for the past generation and the generation of today. The message he gave was more than the future is what you make it; his message was that the leaders of tomorrow are what you make them. The future reflects who you are and what you do.

The First Sergeant of whom I speak had served the U.S. military for forty years, which by itself is amazing. This is not only longer than most people have lived; it’s double the amount of time most people serve. It is as though he has served two careers. Indeed, he served a full career as an Active Duty enlisted Soldier and noncommissioned officer before joining the Army National Guard. He ended serving the last decade of his career as the top noncommissioned officer in two different companies, where, like all first sergeants, he headed up noncommissioned leader development, ran company operations, trained personnel, and in general made sure everything got done. I always found his advice to be extremely valuable, built on his years of experience. When he spoke, years of experience spoke with him.

When he said, “I see myself when I look at this formation,” I think he meant several things, which is why the comments are so deep. They spoke to several levels. Superficially, some may think he meant merely that he remembered being just like the young Soldiers who were standing there in rank-and-file listening to a speech by a respected leader. Or possibly, he meant to say that we all have to start off at the bottom and that they, too, would one day become the leaders of the company. All of this is true. Someone must replace today’s leaders, and that someone is currently a new Soldier. However, as he continued to speak about responsibility to make the unit better and to train those coming behind, it was apparent that he meant something even more meaningful. He meant that the next generation reflects those who train them. This is why he saw himself in the formation. They are his imprint. It is an incredibly important message for the next generation of leaders.

As I have gotten older, I frequently hear that the younger generation are deficient somehow, that they are spoiled and selfish and seem to care less about service. The truth is, however, that the next generation only reflects those who trained them. We complain that they are not taking responsibility for themselves, but this is only the result of not having leaders who required them to take responsibility for themselves. In other words, they reflect the leaders who came before them. If we want the younger generation to uphold standards, we must be the ones who enforce them. If we want them to be leaders, we must require them to be leaders. If we want to put others first, so must we. The successful leader can stand in front of those he has led and recognize in them his own leadership, for they will reflect him. They will follow his lead, they will emulate him, they will grow until they fill his shoes. They contain his imprint, nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, there are many other leaders in our lives than those in the military or those at our jobs. Mainly, there are our parents. Parents have the main responsibility to raise their children, and if they are not instilling in them leadership, responsibility, self-motivation, and service, no one is. If they do not teach their children, it will take a miracle for anyone else to reach them. Even so, many people grow beyond the guidance of their parents. Were this not so, broken homes would produce nothing of value. In the end, it is our own responsibility for how we turn out. We have to choose whether to reflect the good in others or the bad. We decide whether we will receive the imprint of leadership or not. I remain confident that most eventually do.

Each of us has the power to impact the next generation. We will leave an imprint, whether we want to or not. We can make a conscious decision to leave others the best of ourselves by teaching responsibility, service, and self-sacrifice. If we don’t, we will surely teach them our bad habits. The future generation reflects each of us, so leave the best impression by being the leader you want them to be.

© 2022 J.D. Manders