Servant-Leader Lessons from George Henry

George Henry, photographer, author and community leader from Cedar Rapids, Iowa was selected as the subject of an interview for my servant-leadership class in the early 2000s. Just as classic stories never seem to age, neither does George, or his wisdom.  Enjoy.

Interview with a Servant-Leader George Henry

by Jan (Whalen) Roelofs 

George Henry’s life is an ongoing adventure. An entrepreneur from childhood, he has developed a philosophy of leadership that might be called “The Henry Congenial Push.” For this interview, he shares his leadership perspective in four areas of his life: as a pilot in World War II, a boatman, a photographer and an author. 

George Henry Interview


J – You said you were a leader. Can you explain what you mean by that?

G – Well, I guess if nobody else offers to lead, I take it over. This has happened many times: I will give somebody else a few seconds to volunteer to do it, and if I see nobody in the process of volunteering, I find myself taking it over and being in charge of it.

J – So it sounds like you’re saying leadership is stepping forward to get things accomplished? 

G- Yes, that is a part of leadership. Normally you think of a leader in charge of a multi-million dollar corporation, but leadership goes all the way down from there right up to the family itself. You can have a wonderful leader of a family, or a very poor leader of a family.  It depends a lot upon how the marriage goes; the leadership roles played by both the husband and wife. Normally, it starts there, and it develops.You will find that leaders are not born, they are made. You put a person in a leadership role and he does not expect to be in a leadership role, but he is able and has the ability. Most people who get into leadership roles have the ability, they just don’t know it.

J – Has your style of leadership changed throughout the years?

G- I am sure that it has. When you start out with the leadership that you do, you’re kind of exploring different veins. You’re not really sure what you can do and how well you can do it; you just start doing these things. You obviously make mistakes because everybody does, and if you learn from your mistakes you become much better, and get along with people without making too many enemies along the way.

J – Do you have any special way to motivate people to do what they’re supposed to do?

G – You praise them, tell them that they’ve done a good job; that they’re doing the work. If sometimes they don’t do what you want, you don’t really get mad at them, you correct them and tell them how it should be done. 

J- You have led in many ways. When you were in the service, were you a leader?

G – I was a plot of a B-24 bomber and I was in charge of a group of people on the airplane—what they did either on or off base.

J- When you were flying in World War II, did you motivate your team?

G – When we flew in W.W.II, we meshed together as a crew. We were very good together as we flew together. Everybody got along. We did our missions and came home. And I assumed that’s the way things happened with all crews. A year ago now, my navigator called me and said, “Have you read the Wild Blue?  Basically it’s a story about George McGovern’s crew.” When I read the book, it change my whole view of W.W.II. Our crew evidently was the exception, not the norm. Consequently, I have come to the conclusion that we had an exceptional crew. We flew good missions. We were all friends at the end and when we left, we were still in communication with each other.

J – Did your crew ever say anything to you about your leadership?

G – No, but what I told them happened. They knew that what I told them was the way it was going to be.  There was never any discussion of, “We can’t do that,” or “We shouldn’t do that.” They just did it. In the process of doing, I knew it was going to be done. I didn’t have to worry about checking all the time just to see if things were happening. 

J – Is there anything else about the service and leadership you think we should discuss?

G- It was spring and it got very hot on our base. And we were still in our woolen uniforms and they were hot. So my co-pilot and I decided that it was time to change to khakis, and we changed. About four days later there appeared on the bulletin board, “Nobody will change from their winter uniforms until they are notified.” So we went right back to our woolens for a day—until they posted the official notice and we could be back to wearing khakis. We thought there should be a change and we were outspoken enough to make a statement. Obviously, it got their attention. We made a statement and they made a statement. I’m sure they would have done it sometime, but we wanted to have it done now.

J – How does this demonstrate your idea about getting things done?

G – Push! Push a little, in a nice way. Don’t aggravate them. 

J – What does “push a little” mean to you?

G – Get them off dead center. If something needs to be done, and if I can’t do it myself, I have to get them to do it. 

J – How do you go about doing that?

G – I just say, “We have a deadline and I have to have you do this before I can do this and I’m stymied until you can get it done.” So we just keep mentioning it. Never mad, never arguing, just kind of keep mentioning it. And it works.

J – After the war, you were a boatman. 

G – I started in 1956 and ended three years ago, which was 45 years later in the year 2001.

J – How old were you at the time?

G. When I stopped doing it I would have been 77.

J – How can you compare leading in the military to leading as a boatman?

G – The leadership was much different. You had to basically take complete control. You gave people a few things they could not do. Very minimal. Maybe two or three things: You have to wear a life jacket, you can’t throw stuff overboard, and consequently, you direct their actions. If people know what the restrictions are, they normally do not go outside that. If they do, you just gently say, “Hey, that’s not one of the things we are able to do.” When you reprimand them, very politely, they realized that they have done something that doesn’t happen on this particular type of cruise or boat and it doesn’t happen again. I’ve never had any problems of people going outside the bounds. We had one man who was a cigar smoker and when he got through with it, he tossed his cigar in the river. I reached out, picked it up and handed it back to him. Nothing was said, but it never happened again. 

J – As a boatman, you were able to meet the Kennedy family.

G – Actually on my second trip on the middle fork of the Salmon, I was with the Kennedys. I got  there and poked through the bond of boatman and passenger to basically a friend. One day, I was standing in the water with Bob Kennedy. We were probably about knee deep and the current was pretty strong. One of the young boys came out to where we were standing and we were worried that if the boy would lose his footing, he’d be swept down the river. As we were both standing there…both Bob and I knew there was a great deal of danger for the kid but neither one of us said a word to him. But we were there. The kid finally walked in. So Bob and I turned in and followed him. At that point, Bob turned to me and just said, “Thanks.” We both knew that when we were standing there, if he had slipped, we both could have reached out and grabbed him. But nothing was said to the kid, he never knew that this had happened, but both Bob and I knew what we had on our minds. When we left at that point, we became friends because we both knew what each other thought; which is really kind of a neat story.

J – As a photographer, are you a leader? 

G – Yes, you are alway in charge of the situation. If you go into a group of 100 people to take a group picture, you need to assemble those people the way you want them assembled and when they get there you have to take them look half way decent. And if you see something wrong, you move them around. The photographer goes someplace to get his picture. Maybe he has to rearrange furniture or people or subjects or time or other things. You’ll find that a good photographer is able to do that without riling up anybody; because of necessity, you do it. I have a good example about a photographer a long time ago. Anyway, a president was coming off the plane and the photographer, who was shooting for a big paper, shot, but his flash bulb didn’t go off. “Mr. President, Mr. President. Stop. Stop. Go back a couple of steps. I’ve got to get this picture.” And the president stopped and went back. It was a wonderful example of how the photographer had to get the picture, so he became completely in control of the situation.

J – What motivates you to be a leader today?

G – I guess I really don’t think of myself as a leader, so I’m not motivating myself to be a leader. It’s just something that I do. If you want something done, you do it. I’m working on the third book for 2005 right now.

J – Why do you work on these historical books about Cedar Rapids?

G – I was asked to do the first one. The second one was my own idea. I wanted to do it because there was more coverage to do. I’ve already got twice as many pictures as I can use for the third one, and I’ve just stared gathering pictures for the book. 

J – What is your motivation to do this?

G – Because it needs to be done. The books I’m putting together now will be used as records of Cedar Rapids for forever because it’s correct. And basically I want to do it. Obviously, the amount of work and money you put in, you don’t make any money—you maybe make 10 cents an hour or something like that. So consequently, you don’t do it for the money, you do it because you want to come up with a nice project.

J – Is there interest in this type of book?

G – Yes, I guess when I did the first book, it absolutely amazed me—the desire of people to see pictures of the way Cedar Rapids used to be. I guess the desire of the people is one of the reasons that I’m doing more books on it. The want is there but there was no way to fulfill it, so I filled in the hole!

J – What qualities do leaders today need?

G- One of the qualities that nobody has stressed very much, but leaders should: have things done when they are supposed to be done; be someplace when you are supposed to be there; know what the situation is when you get there; know what you are supposed to do; and then do it. You’ll find that so many people come to someplace completely unprepared to lead and when they get there, nothing happens. You have to be able to communicate with people, you have to be able to have them understand what you’re saying. If you get along with people, you’ll probably be a good leader. 


While George Henry has been my friend and photography mentor since September 11, 2001, this interview has given me a deeper understanding of his wisdom. He speaks with humility and clarity. He gave me no hard and fast leadership rules; just simple truths about trust, respect, friendly honesty, goal setting, building community, and enjoying the journey of life with vitality and a sense of service.

George does not seek the limelight, although you’ll find him there. He does not care about popularity, yet everyone is his enthusiastic friend. He does not identify himself by his career, but he’s one of the most well respected photographers in Cedar Rapids. His wisdom is so simple, that at first, one may pass it by for something more glittery or noisy. George has probably never heard the term servant-leadership, but has lived the concept in his many life adventures. 


George’s life has changed in many ways since the interview we did in 2003, yet when I speak with him on the phone, his unshakable character is evident. He reminds us, “Enjoy every day of your life, because you only have this one life.” He describes himself as “the well-est sick person they have at Cottage Grove.” In the years since his wife’s passing, he has constructed 10 scrapbooks of his life with the same buoyant attitude he’s maintained his whole life. “I can’t use my right hand, so consequently, I’ve become a left-handed person.” 

He’s set a goal to complete more scrapbooks and celebrate his 100th birthday on January 14, 2023, with all the confidence of a World War II pilot. For those who have known and worked with George, how fortunate we to have witnessed”The Henry Congenial Push” first hand. 

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