6 Leadership Insights from Gary Sinise’s Grateful American

Gary Sinise is the real deal. I’ve seen him bring his Lt. Dan Band to San Diego and perform for local military, veterans, and their families. His Gary Sinise Foundation tangibly demonstrates ongoing commitment to the veteran community. As both a veteran and leadership scholar, I was excited to be given an advance copy of Gary Sinise’s book for review (available February 12, 2019, click here to preorder).

While most might recognize Gary Sinise first for his acting, Grateful American: A Journey From Self To Service offers glimpses of an ordinary life made extraordinary through persistence, daring, caring, and leadership. He weaves his call to service throughout. In this review, I highlight six leadership insights from Sinise’s Grateful American.

Anyone can become a leader, and everyone is worthy of that chance.

In Grateful American, Sinise authentically shares an unvarnished glimpse of his youth—mistakes, questionable judgment, partying, and less than stellar school experiences. He could have easily been written off as not worth the time. A single educator created the opportunity for what became a pivotal change. He writes, “[the experience] … pointed me toward redemption. … I’d been handed a fresh start, and I felt hopeful. Grateful. (p. 37)”

Leaders learn …

…from history, experience, from context, from others. Through commitment, trial, experimentation, and pressing boundaries, Sinise learned his craft. Starting in theater, he expanded through directing plays, serving as artistic director for his theater company, acting in and directing films, and working in television. He also learned about veterans, active service personnel, first responders, and their families, in part from family who served, in part from stories of veteran’s experiences, and in part from exposure in a mix of settings such as events sponsored by the USO. Of his opportunities, Sinise writes, “The land of our birth had allowed us to pursue our dreams. (p. 93)”

Leaders invest in relationship building.

Fresh from high school, Sinise and a couple of friends founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Without repeating names here, reading the list of actors you might experience a moment of—wow! That’s how he/she started out?

The evolution of Steppenwolf highlights participants’ investment in a collaborative environment and each other’s growth. They rotated roles of play selection, acting, and directing. They allowed for surfacing crazy and innovative ideas. They argued, demonstrated forgiveness, and fostered willingness to move beyond past trials. They built lasting friendships, and supported individuals whose opportunity led them in and out of the company at different points of time.

Reflecting on the formation and development of Steppenwolf, Sinise acknowledges, “… our theater benefited from a larger institution—the United States of America,” which “allowed us any number of freedoms that we subconsciously used and enjoyed and benefited from, even though we didn’t realize it. (p. 53)” At the same time, the depth of the relationships and the commitments made also surface time and again throughout the book.

Leaders have grit.

The early days of Steppenwolf required perseverance. No one was being paid; the commitment involved the love of acting and a desire to reach audiences by staging and performing plays that would make a difference. Company members pooled resources and everyone had a “day job”—one even worked in Chicago’s sewers. Sinise remembers, “We all ate a lot of mac and cheese back then. A can of tuna fish mixed in was a big treat. (p. 59)”

Persistence, long hours, and hard work characterized the building of Steppenwolf to an internationally recognized company. Much like initiative shown in his youth, when Sinise formed bands with neighborhood kids, Steppenwolf days represented an ethos of “If you can think it up, if you can dream it up, then get off your butt and make it happen. Good things come from focus and effort. (p. 26)”

Leaders create credibility.

In the 1980s, an actor in a Vicks commercial delivered the iconic line “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Such is the antithesis of credibility, and yet—while Sinise never joined the military, his role as Lieutenant Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump became a platform from which he could serve the community. In the prologue of Grateful American, Sinise describes receiving the National Commander’s Award from Disabled American Veterans. The wording reads, “Your superb performance brought awareness of the lifelong sacrifice of disabled veterans back into public consciousness in a remarkably positive way. (p. 5)”

The role resonated so strongly with military and veterans that long before he would be recognized as Gary Sinise, he’d be recognized as Lt. Dan. The Lt. Dan Band formed solely to recognize, entertain, and edify military, veterans, first responders, and their families.

Leaders serve.

Sinise’s call to serve our military and veterans finds roots in his own family’s history, nurtured throughout his life by connecting with veterans and service personnel. Certain profound experiences lead him to ask both ‘what can I do?’ and repeatedly commit to doing more. I encourage reading Grateful American for the multitude of profoundly moving stories, but here are just a few actions Sinise has engaged in:

  • Countless USO appearances and benefit concerts featuring the Lt. Dan Band.
  • Visits to combat zones, bases—foreign and domestic, and hospitals to acknowledge and thank our troops, including personnel who return home with combat related disability and post traumatic stress.
  • Collecting and shipping thousands of school supply kits, shoes, toys, and other goods to “help soldiers help children.”
  • Supporting the creation of the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance, a memorial to “all 416 active duty first responders killed in the line of duty” on 9/11.
  • Building smart homes for veterans and their families to support long term recovery and care.
  • Engaging an historian to capture stories of World War II vets and supporting the development of the World War II museum in New Orleans.
  • Supporting the Snowball Express, bringing together children who have lost a military parent for a multi-day Christmas celebration.

Sinise gives credit to many other individuals and organizations who have also contributed to entertaining and supporting our military, first responders, veterans, and their families. You’ll find a list of partner organizations for the Gary Sinise Foundation at the end of the book. More importantly, Sinise conveys the opportunity we all have to consider the freedoms we experience in our own lives, and in what ways we can give back.

I believe readers will find so much more in Grateful American, than what I’ve described. My husband and I are near contemporaries of Sinise, and I found myself engaged in parallel examination of my own experiences at specific moments in history.

Sinise observes the impact of timing on his life and service, and how certain opportunities opened doors or provided resources to enable expanding the work he performs on behalf of our military. I’m reminded of the biblical story of Esther, queen to Xerxes, who risks death to advocate for her people—the Jews in the kingdom. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, encourages her with the reminder, “… And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)” In a time of political divide in our nation, I am grateful for Gary Sinise’s book that reminds us of the gifts we share, the price of the freedoms we enjoy, and the opportunities we all have to find our own place of service.

Amongst other recognition, one stands out for me: The United States Marine Corps made Gary Sinise an honorary Marine. As a USMC veteran, I couldn’t be more proud.

What are your thoughts on leadership and service? Please share any thoughts on LEADistics’ community page …

I encourage visitors to explore the Gary Sinise Foundation. The foundation’s mission statement includes the phrase “We serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.” Also, consider ordering or preordering Grateful American: A Journey From Self To Service. Using this link to Amazon may generate a small affiliate fee that supports my own mission to provide leadership content to site visitors (see site FAQs for more info).

Thank you for visiting Dr. Kathryn Bingham’s blog! We invite your discussion at LEADistics’ community page. Fans and honest critics are welcomed! Please see our Comments Policy and reuse Permissions on the FAQ page. All posts are covered by copyright law, with all rights reserved.

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