[November 27, 2018] I hate hats.1 I hate wearing them, keeping them looking good, and I hate the way they fit on my head. If it’s raining, I use an umbrella or hood on my coat to keep the rain off my head. But, over time I’ve come to realize that hats also define my leadership. By that I mean people judge my leadership position and ability based on what hat I wear.
I remember when the U.S. Army came out with a new requirement that all soldiers must wear the new black “beret” which replaced the field cap. Special elite troops already wore them and rightly so. Was everybody now an “elite” troop? No, of course not. That was another reason I hated hats; in this case the beret was hard to wear correctly and keep looking neat and fit.
Long after I retired from the U.S. Army, I began to think back over my career and to take a different look at those hats. On the top of my gun case (yep, I have guns in there too) sit four helmets; each from a different era – Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq War, and post Iraq War. I wore each of them in combat at some point and now they sit collecting dust. But visitors to the home of my wife and I are more likely to comment on the helmets than anything in else in our home.
For 40 years I was required to wear some form of hat; the time and place governed by circumstance but more by military regulations. I’ve come to realize that hats carry a good deal of symbolic meaning to others. Nearly every hat I wore was embellished with my military rank. With those hats, people saw that I also possessed a certain level of authority by which to command or to make decisions.
A hat, whether worn voluntarily or required, carries with it a level of symbolism that is often unmistakable. This morning while walking my dog, the hat I wore has “TSC Tractor Supply Co” on it. It was given to me by a friend. To me it’s a free hat. To my wife, it means I’m some kind of hick from the backwoods. Is that really how people see me now?
The lesson for leaders is that hats do have meaning. They communicate much more than their practical value. Hats carry messages like the hat I wore this morning. Are you important, a hick, a military officer, a firefighter, a police officer, a corporate CEO, or just an average kind of guy? Leaders use symbolism to their advantage. But, I still hate wearing hats.
By using the term “hat” I mean anything on my head like an army helmet, beret, cap, cowboy hat, beanie, etc. or whether it’s for keeping out the cold, rain, sun, or heat.