This post was originally published on December 8, 2011 after the death of Harry Morgan. The ideas about leadership remain relevant today.
On Feb. 28, 1983, I was one of the 125 million or so who viewed the finale of the long-running television show M*A*S*H. After 11 years, the last episode was the most watched in TV history to that time. As the characters I had come to care about went their separate ways, I remember viewing the last few minutes with tears in my eyes. Hawkeye flew off in a helicopter. B.J. wildly rode a motorcycle down a dusty ravine. Margaret left in a Jeep, and Colonel Potter sat astride his beloved horse Sophie, as he took one last ride before he gave her to an orphanage. Each character had made a lasting impression.
Colonel Potter, played by Harry Morgan who died yesterday at age 96, was a particular favorite. He was the quirky, but always steady commanding officer of a group of outrageous but very talented medical professionals serving in the Korean War. In the midst of a seemingly dysfunctional unit, few probably thought of the Colonel in terms of leadership. However, the quiet control of this character held the group together.
Colonel Potter was always clear in his mission—to save lives. He railed against the people who created more powerful and more efficient ways to kill the young soldiers and unfortunate civilians who showed up in the mobile army unit he led.
He let the people do the jobs they were expected to do in their own way, and he held them accountable for doing those jobs.
At the same time, he accepted the humanity of the odd assortment of individuals with whom he camein contact - even the unpredictable and outlandish Klinger.
He worked to build trust among the very different and often difficult characters he commanded.
He was genuine. He said what he believed. He continually showed a deep love for his cherished wife Mildred and his treasured horse. He represented patriotism and duty.
He showed sanity in the midst of insanity that came from both outside and inside his command. He demonstrated clarity in a chaotic and sometimes frenzied environment.
He was a role model. He was not actively involved in the hijinks of his rambunctious recruits, but he could laugh and appreciate the humor of amusing situations.
In the last episode, as Colonel Potter began his final ride on his precious horse, Hawkeye and B. J. smartly saluted him, a gesture of respect they had avoided throughout the show. In the end, they showed a genuine admiration and affection for the character and the leader they had so often resisted.
After the show ended, Harry Morgan was asked in an interview if the experience as Colonel Potter had made him a better actor. He hesitated for a moment, and with a slight crack in his voice, Morgan said the show had made him a better human being.
How many of us can say that our work in whatever roles we play has made us better human beings?
So long. Harry Morgan.