Leadership Lessons from Heroes, the Bravest of Men

Leadership Lessons of HeroesI had the great honor of hearing two recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor speak on Friday at a public event in my small, suburban Chicago community.  It was a tremendously moving, probably once-in-a-lifetime experience.

According to the Medal of Honor Society:

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the U.S. Armed Services. The honor is generally presented to its recipient by the President of the United States in the name of Congress. Since the award was first given for acts of bravery before and during the Civil War, Congress has only recognized 3,454 men and one woman for such extreme acts of valor. Only 85 recipients are living today.

The two recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor were retired U.S. Navy Petty Officer Michael Thornton and retired U.S. Army Corporal Rodolfo Hernandez.

Heroism Defined

To truly understand the emotion that pervaded the auditorium in which they spoke, you have to read and understand the almost unfathomable stories of courage that led to these two men having the Medal bestowed upon them. 

Thornton received his Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” while participating in a daring operation against enemy forces during the Vietnam conflict in 1972.  Per his citation:

PO Thornton, as Assistant U.S. Navy Advisor, along with a U.S. Navy lieutenant serving as Senior Advisor, accompanied a 3-man Vietnamese Navy SEAL patrol on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation against an enemy-occupied naval river base. Launched from a Vietnamese Navy junk in a rubber boat, the patrol reached land and was continuing on foot toward its objective when it suddenly came under heavy fire from a numerically superior force (LP: he told us the enemy numbered more than 100).

The patrol called in naval gunfire support and then engaged the enemy in a fierce firefight, accounting for many enemy casualties before moving back to the waterline to prevent encirclement. Upon learning that the Senior Advisor had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, PO Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position; quickly disposed of 2 enemy soldiers about to overrun the position, and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious Senior Naval Advisor to the water’s edge.

He then inflated the lieutenant’s lifejacket and towed him seaward for approximately 2 hours until picked up by support craft. By his extraordinary courage and perseverance, PO Thornton was directly responsible for saving the life of his superior officer and enabling the safe extraction of all patrol members, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Hernandez received his Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy” during the Korean conflict in 1951. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society:

 His platoon, in defensive positions on Hill 420, came under ruthless attack by a numerically superior and fanatical hostile force, accompanied by heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire which inflicted numerous casualties on the platoon. His comrades were forced to withdraw due to lack of ammunition but Cpl. Hernandez, although wounded in an exchange of grenades, continued to deliver deadly fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants until a ruptured cartridge rendered his rifle inoperative.

Immediately leaving his position, Cpl. Hernandez rushed the enemy armed only with rifle and bayonet. Fearlessly engaging the foe, he killed 6 of the enemy before falling unconscious from grenade, bayonet, and bullet wounds but his heroic action momentarily halted the enemy advance and enabled his unit to counterattack and retake the lost ground. The indomitable fighting spirit, outstanding courage, and tenacious devotion to duty clearly demonstrated by Cpl. Hernandez reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army.

The Ceremony

I have to be honest with you, I was brought to tears simply by the opening ceremony and continued to tear up throughout the event.  As Mike and Rudy stood on the stage of the auditorium, we began with the Pledge of Allegiance.  The flag was situated next to the two heroes, and it was so poignant and powerful reciting the words knowing how these two gentlemen had sacrificed for us in the most courageous way possible.

A member of our community then went up to the gentlemen and faced them, told them it was an honor to sing for them, and then sang, “America the Beautiful” a capella.  Words just can’t describe the emotion of those few minutes.

 Leadership, Heroism and Patriotism…In Their Own Words

Both Mike and Rudy took a few minutes to tell us a little about their personal stories, in a very humble way, and the Medal of Honor Foundation shared a brief movie that captured the words of a number of the recipients who are still alive today.

I think the best way for me to share with you their wisdom is to simply share their own words.  I hope the weight of them, the power and the sacrifice behind them moves you in the same way they moved me.

About the Medal of Honor:

I hold it in trust for those who never grew up to be grandfathers.

I wear it for those who performed acts far greater than those I did, but there was no one left to tell their story.

On Leadership:

You never truly lead anybody until you learn to serve, and you never truly learn to serve until you learn there’s something so much greater than yourself.

If it’s to be it’s up to me. I lead by taking the first step.

As a leader, only ask others to do what you’ve done.  Only ask them to do what you’re willing to do.

On the battlefield:

I stood up and looked him in the eye.

You don’t leave your brother…it wasn’t even a decision.

I felt something had to be done.  I didn’t even think about it, I just did it.

I asked them to trust me.  And I promised them I’d bring them home.

The reason we fought so hard was ’cause we loved each other.

On Our Country:

I am an American!

Freedom is not free.  People really need to understand this…freedom is not free.

We live in the greatest country in the world.  I’ve traveled to 76 countries and dived on every shore.  We are so lucky in America.

Service is everything.  It’s about us as a nation and as a community.

Personal lessons and insights:

My biggest obstacle to overcome is myself.

No one is exempt from fear…you have no choice but to do it.

Turn your fear into a positive goal. That’s how you overcome it.

Final Words of Wisdom

You can all make great changes in the country.

Set a goal every day and meet it.  That’s how you get through Navy Seal training.  That’s how you succeed in life.

Dream big.

Never give up. Never quit. Never give up.

I am honored to announce that tomorrow night’s Leadership Chat will focus on the topic of “Military Leadership – Lessons We are Truly Meant to Learn” and will feature Guest Host, Wally Bock

Wally is a well-known leadership expert and is also a Marine.  Military service in his family goes back 1000 years; his grandfather served in the Crown Prince’s guard during WWI.  

Please join me, Wally and my brilliant Co-Host Steve Woodruff tomorrow evening, July 26th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time for a one-hour chat about military leadership that is not to be missed.


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Three Lost Truths About Valor in Leadership

Where Courage Comes From and Which Leaders Have It

20 Smart Insights on Leadership and Courage from Leadership Chat

Photo of  Medal awarded to LTJG Weedon E. Osborne, who was attached to the fifth regiment of the Marines at Bellau Wood, France June 6th 1918,  is by the Naval History and Heritage Command.


  1. rfisher1228 says:

    Love this quote “You never truly lead anybody until you learn to serve, and you never truly learn to serve until you learn there’s something so much greater than yourself.”

    great post

  2. LisaPetrilli says:

    @rfisher1228 Thank you – I did too. They are two brilliantly inspiring men and I found their lessons to be both insightful and motivating. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  3. Thank you for this post. I really loved it!…. The timing was impeccable. If you get this check out my facebook profile status. I just wrote that…

    Anyway, appreciate the shout out to the troops.

    Former USMC Veteran

    • Thank you, Tripp – I’m so glad to know that! And you are very welcome… Thank you for your service to our country – it means the world to me and my family!


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