It has been called the greatest photograph of all time. It may well be the most widely reproduced, even winning the Pulitzer Prize for photography. Snapped on February 23, 1945 as our nation was fighting its way across the Pacific as part of the island hopping campaign in World War II, it served as the symbol for the Seventh War Loan Drive; was used on a postage stamp; appeared on the cover of countless magazines and newspapers across the globe; and even served as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial that today stands in Arlington, Virginia–a timeless symbol of the cost our military members are willing to bear in defending the values, ideas, and principles this great nation was founded upon.
The famous picture of five marines and a navy corpsman struggling with bullets flying, to raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the tiny island of Iwo Jima in the middle of the Pacific Ocean perfectly captures the sense of momentum of six men straining toward a common goal. In this instance, that goal was to mark claim to the most strategic point on the island following one of the costliest battles in Marine Corps history. Its toll of 6,821 Americans dead, 5,931 of them Marines, accounted for nearly one-third of all Marine Corps losses in all of World War II.
Eyewitness accounts confirm that raising the flag on the fourth day of the bloody battle of Iwo Jima ignited a wave of energy and enthusiasm that could be heard across the island. Just as the battle was bogging down and progress was reduced to mere inches an hour, the red, white, and blue of our nation’s flag was seen proudly flying atop that hilltop. American troops were filled with a new found vigor and vitality. The momentum of that moment inspired them to push through to achieve the mission of conquering what would become the first Japanese homeland soil to be captured by the Americans.
The inspiring story of these six courageous men reminds us of the true definition of leadership. That is, leadership is not a position we earn or seek but rather is a responsibility we choose to fulfill. A choice to step outside our comfort zones and do what we can, when we can, where we can to have more impact, make more of a difference, and lead our lives for a higher purpose.
Whether we realize it or not, we all want to lead our lives for a higher purpose. In fact, science confirms we are wired from birth to contribute to a cause larger than ourselves. Sociologist Ernest Becker writes, “Man will lay down his life for his country, his society, his family. He will choose to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades; he is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful.”
What Becker is reminding us is the fact that achieving true happiness and satisfaction in life requires us to pursue goals that are relevant, honorable, and that contribute to creating the kind of society we each desire and deserve. Life cannot be merely about us. If we want to thrive as citizens and as a nation, we must figure out what each of us can do to roll up our sleeves and do something to add value to our surroundings—one opportunity at a time.
One inspiring leader who is answering the call to do just that it Karen Ross.
Karen is the CEO of the New York-based strategic technology, staffing and project management company Sharp Decisions. For almost a quarter of a century, her organization has been providing best in class technology services to both national and international clients. And she’s done so by building her business on the same timeless values as those who serve in the United States Armed Forces. Namely, integrity, professionalism and dedication.
Upon hearing of many veterans’ difficult plight to successfully reintegrate into society, and despite having no formal connection to the military, she decided to get serious about doing something to help these young heroes establish a new, sustainable path forward. Contributing $250,000 of her own money, she began the one-of-a-kind V.E.T.S. (Vocations, Education and Training for Service Members) program.
V.E.T.S is designed to help provide former service members with valuable, in-demand technology skills such as software testing and data mining capabilities. Although there are certainly numerous programs across the country designed to help return military veterans to the workforce, this program is unique in one very important way in that it is grounded in one of the military’s most treasured and timeless principles: teamwork.
You see, Karen and her team not only equip veterans with valuable individual technical skills, they actually place these warriors in small teams of three or four people so they can support one another in the journey of developing relevant new life skills. Not for a week or a month, but for as long as it takes to provide these talented young veterans with the confidence and strength to successfully set off on their own.
Karen Ross provides us a glimpse into leadership in its most basic, fundamental form. That is, much like those brave young Marines decades ago who selflessly chose to risk their lives raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, her example reminds us that leadership isn’t a position we earn or seek but rather, is a responsibility we choose to fulfill. A choice to step outside our comfort zones and do what we can, when we can, where we can to have more impact, make more of a difference, and lead our lives for a higher purpose.
One opportunity at a time.