3 Core Traits for Leadership Success
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, the top leader of 200,000 men and women, was making his annual Christmas cookie deliveries. He and his wife would drive around the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, and deliver cookies to young Marines who were unlucky enough to have guard duty on Christmas Day.
He stopped in one building and asked the young Lance Corporal on duty which officer was standing guard with him that day.
“Sir, it’s Brigadier General Mattis,” the Lance Corporal said.
“No, no,” said the Commandant, “I know who General Mattis is. I mean who’s the officer on duty here today?”
Generals are about 5 ranks above standing guard duty, you see.
The Lance Corporal started to get nervous and responded “Sir, it is Brigadier General Mattis.”
The Commandant then pointed to a cot in the room directly behind the duty desk. He asked the Lance Corporal one more time.
“Who slept there last night, Lance Corporal?”
Just then General Mattis walked towards them down the hallway in full duty uniform.
The Commandant, totally surprised, said “Jim, what are you doing here on Christmas day? And what are you doing on duty?”
General Mattis replied:
“Sir, I looked at the duty roster for today and there was a young Major who had it who is married and had a family; Since I’m a bachelor, I thought why should the Major miss out on the fun of having Christmas with his family, so I took the duty for him.”
And the legendary leadership of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis continued to grow. He eventually rose to become the Secretary of Defense and became a living legend among military and civilians alike.
So…compassion, cookies, Marines, Christmas…what?
Two of the most powerful military leaders in the world were displaying acts of compassion.
You see, this was just who they were.
That ingrained compassion is one core reason they became the revered leaders they are.
Here are three core traits needed to make a leader truly successful.
1. Honoring Compassion, the Mother of True Leadership
“Compassionate people are geniuses in the art of living, more necessary to the dignity, security, and joy of humanity than the discoverers of knowledge.”
As a young Marine fresh out of Boot Camp I was lucky enough to meet one of the best leaders I would ever have. He was a Sergeant who’d been around a long time and was highly respected by everyone he met. He was one of the toughest people I’ve ever met on one hand, but one of the most compassionate on the other.
He both challenged us more and cared about us more than any other leader we had. And the reason we rose to his challenges with enthusiasm is that we knew how much he cared. He truly wanted to make us better people.
If one of us was having a personal problem, he’d sit down and talk to us person to person, not senior to subordinate or Sergeant to Private. He used his higher rank to take care of us whenever he could. He stepped on senior toes to make sure we always had what we needed. He listened to us intently. He took what we said to heart and remembered it.
In return, we gave him our very best, our loyalty, and our love. We had to follow him but that didn’t matter, we wanted to follow him.
He was technically good at his job also which is also important for good leadership, but many leaders are. What set him apart was how much he cared about “his” people. That’s what made us not just followers of him, but loyal and enthusiastic ones.
To be able to genuinely display this compassion a leader must have compassion for themself first. A leader must love themselves with humility to show true compassion to others.
Compassion is the mother of all leadership skills because it enables each one to be applied for the right reasons. Compassion nurtures growth and spawns loyalty.
That’s why compassion seems to be deeply ingrained in those leaders we love the most.
“To the degree you experience a love deficit you will also manifest a leadership deficit.”― Glenn C. Stewart
2. Know Thyself To Improve Thyself
This principles of leadership is one we learned in the Marines and was drilled into us in Boot Camp and after.
An effective leader is always improving even if just in small incremental ways. They have the humility to see where they are weak so they can seek the knowledge to improve. They have the self-awareness to know how people see them so they can then improve that view if needed. They have the empathy to know how others feel.
A good leader is what they choose to be. They don’t blame others for their shortcomings, only themselves.
Compassion also comes into play here. A leader has to forgive themselves for shortcomings while nurturing themselves with compassion into betterment.
A good leader knows that even if they’ve hit their personal best, there’s always room for a new personal best. Potential is endless with the right mindset.
They improve by reading books and learning all they can about their craft.
Mattis once said about leadership, war, and life:
“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
Without humility, a leader can’t improve. Without self-awareness or empathy, a leader can’t work with others efficiently. Without the constant drive for knowledge, a leader will stagnate in status quo.
Know yourself. Seek self-improvement. Always.
3. “Get Action!”
Another of my favorite Roosevelt quotes describes his outlook on life and leadership:
“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”
A true leader “gets action.” Then people follow their example. They have the courage to act. They take responsibility for what happens around them.
Before I was a Marine, I was in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
Those of you familiar with Central PA know it’s the trucking hub of the northeast US. Big rigs regularly lose huge pieces of rubber from one of their 18 massive tires. The rubber “retreads” often fly off onto the road. They become a huge hazard to drivers, especially ones with less-sharp reflexes.
I was a brand new Private, 18 years old. We were driving a Hummer down the multi-lane highway after an exercise and we saw a retread in the middle of the road. My Sergeant insisted we pull over and get it out of the road.
“Private Klein, if you see something, anything, that you can fix then you must fix it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You are that someone. It’s your responsibility as a soldier and a leader someday to take responsibility for everything that happens around you. You choosing to move that retread could possibly save a life today. You not moving it could possibly end one.”
That stuck with me. I’m so thankful I had good leaders to teach me good leadership through their example.
Good leaders “get action.” They have the courage to act. They take the initiative to act. They own their surroundings. They don’t wallow in blame or wait for others to do something. They take full responsibility for the things they can control, including themselves, and they don’t despair about the rest.
General Mattis was once heard to have said that he wanted to make sure leaders:
“don’t allow their passion for excellence to destroy their compassion for subordinates.”
Compassion is the mother of true leadership. Without it, a leader will only get so far. Without it, they surely won’t become great.
A good leader knows themself and seeks self-improvement.
A good leader has the courage to “get action.”
When these three traits are combined something magical happens. A leader is made who has unlimited potential.
A leader is made who people will love to follow.
You may never be in charge of 200,000 people or become Secretary of Defense like General Mattis, but you can become a great boss, a leader, people will love to work for.