Awards and Recognition Ceremonies – Are They Really All About You?

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Napoleon Bonaparte

An Air Force physician had not had a ceremony for his promotion to major and asked me if he should have one for his coming promotion to lieutenant colonel. His former supervisor was not pleased, and though this bright and self-effacing young officer didn’t want to be honored in front of others, he also didn’t want to get in trouble.

During two years as Chief Medical Officer at an Army hospital in Virginia, I routinely interviewed people leaving the Army. Several retiring officers said that they did not want retirement ceremonies. They felt that such events put too much focus on them and they wanted to pass quietly into civilian life.

I had recently transferred to a new unit and was meeting the rest of the command staff. While admiring the photos, awards, unit colors and certificates of the Command Sergeant Major (CSM), he said to me “Sir, don’t bother about all that. It’s just my ‘I love me’ wall.”

What is the right answer? Are awards and recognition exclusively, or even mostly, for the individual? We have all been put off by self-absorbed people crowing about their honors, but are honors really about crowing? What impact do honors given to an individual have on others in the same organization? This paper is intended to address some of these questions.

The Importance of Awards

Since before the Greeks gave laurel wreaths for winners at the ancient Olympics, mankind has understood the need for awards. There is neither a school nor an organization in the world that, in some fashion, does not award its top performers. The Arts have the Grammy Awards, the Oscars, and the Pulitzer Prize. The Sciences have the Noble Prize and awards from various professional groups. Sports have the most valuable player awards, the Olympics, and various championships. The military has dozens of awards, from the Good Conduct Medal to the Medal of Honor.

Though easy to disparage, as when John Kerry threw away his medals from Vietnam, awards are powerful motivators. U.S. Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph wrote “The feeling of accomplishment welled up inside of me, three Olympic gold medals. I knew that was something nobody could ever take away from me, ever.”

The Importance of Recognition Ceremonies

Every person on earth engages in ceremony, including birthday parties, religious services, graduations, marriages and funerals. It is the ceremonial occasions, not the day to day grind of meetings, emails, and other work, that people remember decades later. In Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play Our Town, when the recently deceased Emily Webb is given the chance to observe just one day of her earthly life, she chooses a ceremonial occasion, her 12th birthday. There is no culture or individual in which ceremony does not play a major role. It provides the milestones for our lives and in many ways defines who we are.

James Humes was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, specializing in ceremonial rather than policy speeches. In his book The Sir Winston Method; the Five Secrets of Speaking the Language of Leadership, Humes wrote that “I was called ‘the Schmalze king’, but I took pride in the title.“ He is right. Some of the greatest speeches in history, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, have been ceremonial. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” was ceremonial, given during a civil rights march and staged at the Lincoln Memorial.

What should leaders do?

Given these facts, military officers and enlisted personnel at all levels must grant awards whenever earned. They must also encourage and require that their soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen participate in ceremonies for others and host ceremonies themselves. There are several specific reasons:

1. They encourage attendees in their pursuit of higher rank, a 20+ year career, etc.
2. They foster respect and appreciation for military traditions.
3. They confer appropriate weight on the accomplishment itself (rank, award or retirement).
4. They engender camaraderie and esprit de corps in units.
5. They help with recruitment and retention.
6. They provide a venue for unit command to show their appreciation for their soldiers and civilians.
7. They are a source of pride and encouragement in families.
8. They forge a link between the individual and others, past and present, in the new group (rank, award, etc.). For example, when a soldier joins the NCO corps, he/she joins the ranks of a long and distinguished line of American NCOs throughout our history. When a soldier is awarded a Purple Heart, he/she joins others who have also been honorably wounded for their country.
9. They mark important transition points in the life of an individual and an organization.
10. They recognize individual achievement.

Notice that on this list of 10 reasons why awards and recognition ceremonies are important, only the last has to do with the awardee. All of the others have to do with others. Awards and recognition ceremonies ultimately benefit the unit and other soldiers more than they do the one receiving the award.

In our cynical age many disparage the ideas of honor and tradition, but in our human hearts we know that our earthly sojourn will end and we desperately want our lives to mean something; to be involved in a good cause far greater than ourselves. Because of this, recognition is one of the most powerful of human motivators. Leaders must never let an opportunity to award and recognize someone for good performance go by.

Sometimes, as noted above, medical soldiers and officers take awards and recognition ceremonies too lightly. Often they don’t even know how they are supposed to occur. As a result, I have included a few notes on a sample ceremony.

A Sample Army Promotion ceremony

Preparation

1. Planning and coordination must be started at least six weeks before the event.
2. The soldier being promoted must contact the personnel officer to confirm the date of the promotion and the receipt of the orders. The personnel officer is critical in the process and must be consulted at all stages.
3. The soldier must also contact their chain of command including the Unit Commander (CDR) to inform them of the promotion and work out the details such as a the date, time, etc. The Chain of Command will make sure that the unit colors and soldier support are available.
4. The one being promoted needs to invite whoever he chooses to be in the ceremony.
5. All soldiers involved in the ceremony should be in dress uniform (usually Army service uniform) unless the ceremony is occurring in a combat zone.
6. Civilians should be in business attire.

Sample program

1. Moderator welcomes attendees to the promotion. Unit colors provide the backdrop to the promotion
2. Entry of the official party (CDR, CSM, soldier being promoted)
3. National Anthem
4. Invocation
5. Promoting officer/NCO provides remarks – a brief history of the promoted soldier, including family and career.
6. Reading of the promotion orders
7. Pinning of the rank (pictures)
8. Reaffirmation of the Oath of Office – optional (pictures)
9. Promoted officer comments (may include the presentation of a gift to the spouse, children, family, etc.)
10. Conclusion (Army Song, benediction, or simply “This concludes our ceremony”)
11. Reception

Traditions in other services are also rich. The naval tradition of the bell and the side boys is especially enjoyable.

What about the “I love me wall?”

We have seen that awards and recognition ceremonies are more about others than about the person recognized at the time they are given. They are also more about others than about the person recognized when they are later displayed on a wall, a table, or a business card.

As a physician I have had patients come into the office and look at my medical school and residency diplomas. As a patient I have done the same at other physician’s offices. Physicians know what academic credentials they have and don’t need to be reminded. Patients do not know what credentials their doctors have but they need to know. After all, they will be sharing responsibility for their health with that person.

As a soldier, I enjoy looking at the awards and other memorabilia in others’ offices. They may have served in a unit or location where I served. Perhaps we will have memories or acquaintances in common. Others’ careers have encouraged and motivated me over the years and perhaps mine can do so for someone else. Even on the rare times that I pause and look at the unit colors or Iraqi flag on my wall, it is to remember times, places and comrades in arms. How many soldiers, or others, really stare at a wall of certificates and glory in themselves?

Conclusion

I told the Air Force major to get help from his chain of command and the personnel officer and plan his promotion ceremony. I told the retiring officers that they needed to have a retirement ceremony even if they didn’t feel that they wanted it. I told the CSM that his wall was a benefit to all of the rest of us more than it was to him. We wanted to get to know the senior leaders that we work with. Afterwards, most of them understood and appreciated the guidance. After all, awards and recognition ceremonies are really not about you, or me, but about us.

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