I recently came across the following quote in a fairly significant leadership book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Rashow, and Marty Linsky.

"The word leader comes from the Indo-European root word leit, the name for the person who carried the flag in front of army going into battle and usually died in the first enemy attack. His sacrifice would alert the rest of the army to the location of the danger ahead." Page 26 of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

The problem is that I'm having difficulty finding any source that confirms that 'leit' referred to the flag bearer in a battle. I've found that it means "to leave" and "to die", but I'm not finding where the flag bearer concept came from, and they don't cite a source.

So I have two questions: Did 'leit' refer to the person carrying the flag going into battle? If not, what is a fuller meaning of the word as it was originally used?

Thank you so much. Miguel

  • 5
    This is rubbish. A useful source for etymologies is etymonline.com, mostly drawn from the OED; s.v. lead (v.1) it gives '"to guide," Old English lædan (transitive) "cause to go with oneself; march at the head of, go before as a guide, accompany and show the way; carry on; sprout forth, bring forth; pass (one's life)," causative of liðan "to travel," from Proto-Germanic *laidjan (source also of Old Saxon *lithan, Old Norse liða "to go," Old High German ga-lidan "to travel," Gothic ga-leiþan "to go"), from PIE *leit- (2) "to go forth."' Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 23:03
  • Thanks. This is what I found on the American Heritage Dictionary's appendix of Indo European roots: ‌‌leit- To go forth, die. Suffixed o-grade form *loit-eyo‑. lead1, from Old English lǣdan, to lead; leitmotif, from Old High German leitan, to lead. Both a and b from Germanic *laidjan. Suffixed variant o-grade form *loit-ā‑. load, lode; livelihood, from Old English lād, course, way, from Germanic *laidō. [Pokorny leit(h)‑ 672.] ///
    – user241599
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 23:22
  • Which is all to say that yes, I think this whole flag this is just made up.
    – user241599
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 23:23
  • 1
    Yeah, a false flag operation.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 23:35
  • 1
    Hi J.R. Miguel here. I thought this might also be a possibility but neither can I find a reference that connects 'leit' with this role of flag-bearer. Not even a passing reference outside of citations of this specific book. Would appreciate it if anyone knows of a reference.
    – user241599
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


It could be Indo-European the origin of the word leader. It could be related with a manifestation of bravura in battle. I have strong doubts if it is only related with "flag" such bravura. Flag as we understand it today is definitely VERY different from what Indo-European had. Regarding the source I would suggest for you to check in the references mentioned in the book. By the way I found exactly what you wrote [The word leader comes from the Indo- European root word leit, the name for the person who carried the flag in front of an army going into battle and usually died in the first enemy attack. His sacrifice would alert the rest of the army to the location of the danger ahead (p.26)] here https://keithdwalker.ca/wp-content/summaries/m-p/Practice%20of%20Adaptive%20Leadership.Heifetz%20et%20al.EBS.pdf

  • 2
    Hello, KwanzaKymi, and thanks for your interest in English language & Usage. Unfortunately the link that you provide—although it does include the quotation that the original poster cites—amounts to a lengthy advertisement for the book author's various services, with no further context beyond what the OP provided. Moreover, your suggestion that the the OP check the references cited in the book is closer to friendly advice than to a substantive answer. Please consider altering your answer to make it more responsive to the two specific questions that the OP asks near the end of his post.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 5:17
  • @SvenYargs the time you took to comment on my comment if you had use it to read the link you would find the phrase in the end the first page. How unfortunate. :(
    – KwanzaKymi
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 12:36
  • @Sven Yargs, please read the end of the first page of the linked presented before: keithdwalker.ca/wp-content/summaries/m-p/… ![enter image description here](i.sstatic.net/PsKgB.jpg)
    – KwanzaKymi
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 12:38
  • @KwanzaKymi How exactly is a page which quotes the same passage that is quoted in the question, with no further context, supposed to answer the question? Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 17:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I might understand your point because my comments were deleted by the digital KGB so you have not access to full comments. I Once you give power to people they will use it... ☺I come here to learn not so much to argue as if I would be in a police answering questions. It is not in my nature being slave.
    – KwanzaKymi
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 4:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.