All Commentary
Sunday, April 16, 2023

Raise a Standard for Others by Improving Yourself

True leaders and teachers rally voluntary followers and students.

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth by Emanuel Leutze

“The individual is the only one who can attend to the degree and the perfection of his own variability. Others cannot in a creative sense, do anything to him. If they would help, they must limit themselves to what they can do for him. For him, they can do little beyond attending to their own emergence—materially, intellectually, spiritually. They can, by precept and example, set a standard to which he can repair. They can have goods and services to exchange, or knowledge and insight to offer. But whether or not he takes advantage of their offerings is a matter for his own election. No one else can decide.”

— Leonard E. Read, Why Not Try Freedom? (1958)

The best way to improve others is to focus on improving yourself. The better you become, the more you will inspire others to emulate your conduct and hearken to your words. Individuals will voluntarily follow your standard.

The word “standard” in this context is derived from the military flags that would be raised above the dust and smoke of battle to visibly mark the location of the field leader and thus create a rallying point for the troops.

This is an apt metaphor for life in general. Everyone sometimes feels aimless and lost in the fray of the day. At such times, we look for leaders to emulate and teachers to learn from. We especially seek out individuals who evince mastery: exemplars who clearly know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about.

And the best way to manifest mastery is not to proclaim it but to attain it. The more you cultivate yourself, the more you will naturally radiate evidence of mastery. That evidence will be a shining standard that others will look to for direction and encouragement. That is how true leadership and education works.

The opposite approach is to prowl around the battlefield of life trying to dragoon unwilling “followers” and “students”—hectoring them about where to go, how to behave, and what to think. But such a futile endeavor will cause you to neglect your own participation in the struggle, making it more likely that you yourself will fail and that your standard will fall in the mud. Then you won’t be able to truly lead or teach anyone.

There is a crucial difference between leading and driving, between education and indoctrination. Leaders of free men and women are not drivers of cattle or conscripts. And teachers of free minds are not inculcators of mindless conformity.

As Leonard E. Read wrote in Students of Liberty (1950):

“A person does not become a teacher either by self-designation or by designation of a third party—government or other. A teacher is designated solely and exclusively by the student.

Similarly, nobody becomes a leader through self- or government-appointment. A true leader is appointed solely and exclusively by the follower.

And followers and students are naturally drawn to the high standards of conduct and understanding that can only be raised by individuals genuinely dedicated to self-improvement.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”

George Washington according to Governeur Morris, “Oration upon the Death of General Washington” (1799)


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.