Do Symbols and Achievements Define You?

US military medals

This weekend I’ve been in Phoenix visiting family. It’s been fun, rewarding and challenging. I helped my daughter move some things from her apartment in Tucson back to Phoenix for the summer before she heads to Scotland for a class. I helped my mom with a few errands, chores and “honey-dos.” I grilled one night, ate New Mexican food at a favorite local restaurant and attended my old church. I also visited the National Cemetery in Phoenix where my dad was buried a year ago.

My mom and I drove up early Saturday morning. The setting was peaceful, serene. The markers were laid out in neat, tidy rows and the grounds were immaculately kept. 147, 17D is the location of my dad’s final earthly resting place. The cacti were in bloom, the sky was blue, the temperature was in the low 80s, the humidity was low, the sun was out, and the color of the desert was on full display. If you’ve spent much time in the desert, you know what I mean. If not, you’ll have to take my word for it.

During the weekend I helped go through some of my dad’s old uniforms and medals. He was a retired Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps. I decided I’d like to put together a shadow box honoring his service, sacrifice and valor. A shadow box, in case you don’t know, is basically a display of ribbons, medals and other awards earned during one’s military career. My dad never wanted a shadow box and displayed few, if any, symbols of his military service in the house. But with his passing, it’s a way for me to stay connected, remember his service, and honor his legacy. So I went through a box that had been tucked away. In it were a variety of ribbons, medals, awards, and the like. It brought back a lot of memories.

I thought about the bases on which we’d lived. Parris Island, Twenty-Nine Palms, Quantico, Camp Lejeune. I thought about the tours during which he was gone. I thought about the combat he faced. And I thought about our conversations over the years regarding rank, awards, promotions, medals, and recognition. I learned early on that some great men and women are not truly recognized for their sacrifice, valor or heroism. I learned that not all who receive medals are heroes. I learned that one’s commanding officer had a lot to do with whether or not an individual or a unit received recognition. I learned that many died without receiving the recognition they were due. And I learned that many who have a chest full of medals never faced combat or enjoyed the respect of their peers. They were like the Boy Scout who had all the merit badges but couldn’t build a fire or set up a tent. I learned that some men and women are defined by symbols such as medals while others are not. I learned that, for some, the medal was the end (the goal) versus a by-product of selfless, sacrificial behavior.

The same is true in the corporate and academic worlds. Some people are defined by their rank, their title, their salary, their degrees, or their net worth. And because I was extra self-reflective this weekend, I wondered how I’m doing. Am I letting “rank” (regardless of how it’s measured) define me? Are you?
And while there’s nothing wrong with enrolling in a formal university degree program or obtaining an industry certification or setting goals for yourself in terms of salary or title, I’m going to contend that they should be the means not the end. Use your financial means and positional authority to help serve others. Use your formal education to open doors of influence. Don’t let the medals, the symbols, define you. Use them to help serve others.

No one like a phony who reeks of false humility. If you’ve just completed your doctoral degree, celebrate. If you’ve just received a raise at work, take the family out for a nice meal. If you’ve just been promoted, have a family cookout or go somewhere for the weekend. But don’t let outer symbols and achievements define who you are. You’re better than that. Use them as a means to even great levels of service to others, not as an end that glorifies yourself. Such narcissistic behavior turns others off, reduces impact and stunts future growth.

My dad was presented a number of medals and awards. Did he deserve more? Undoubtedly. Was he appreciative of his opportunity to serve others? Absolutely. Was he defined by outward achievements such as rank and medals? No way.

Examine your own situation this week. Do your achievements, awards, medals, wealth, and social status define you? Or do you use them to open new doors of service to others? Enjoy your success and be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t let symbols and achievements define you.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]

Photo by Author

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.