The Most Critical Qualities a Boss Needs to Succeed

Courage and compassion so powerful it could stop a war

Photo Credit: G-Stock Studio on Shutterstock

Richard Kirkland knew he had to do something. The cries of men dying were too much even though these men were his enemy.

Kirkland asked his boss, a Confederate Army brigade commander, if he could go help the men. The commander reluctantly allowed it.

Sergeant Kirkland gathered up a dozen full canteens and went out into the open battlefield to tend to the dying men.

At first, the Union soldiers on the other side of the field assumed Kirkland was out plundering the dead. They started shooting at him.

The firing subsided when they realized Kirkland was tending to their comrades.

Then the firing stopped.

The surrounding area called Marye’s Heights was briefly void of the sounds of war. Both sides in the battle, the North and the South, looked on in silence as Richard helped the wounded men.

One man, Richard Kirkland, brought the battle and thus the war to a halt if only for a short time with a compassion that was stronger than fear — a love for his fellow man — a courage stronger than self-preservation.

This was pure compassion. It was love. It transcended death.

This was also pure leadership.

Kirkland died soon after in another battle, but the men who witnessed his actions that day didn’t forget it.

After the war, he was honored with his own statue and he was forever after remembered as…

“The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”

I’ve studied and practiced leadership in various military, corporate, and volunteer positions for 25 years. I feel what Sergeant Kirkland can teach us are the two most powerful lessons we can learn as leaders.

Here they are:

A Leader Must Have Courage

Without courage, nothing meaningful is possible when it counts. If you have courage as a boss, you stand up for your people when it’s difficult. You back them up regardless of risk. They know you won’t cave or throw them under a bus to preserve yourself. You have the courage to give them all the credit for success while taking any failures entirely on your shoulders.

There are two types of courage — moral and physical. They build on one another so both should be developed.

Olivier Serrat, in his book Moral Courage in Organizations, defines them:

Physical courage is fortitude in the face of death (and its threat), hardship, or physical pain. Moral courage…is put simply as the ability to act rightly in the face of discouragement or opposition, possibly and knowingly running the risk of adverse personal consequences.

As a Marine, we were often trained for things to strengthen our physical courage. Just like police or firefighters, we were trained to run toward the danger. This becomes easier the more you do it. It doesn’t eliminate fear, it just improves your ability to take action despite it.

But for many people including me, moral courage is even more difficult than physical courage. Scarier. Doing what you believe despite criticism and even the possible wrath of those around you is simply tough.

So how do you develop moral and physical courage?

Start small. Little things. Your courage is like a muscle. If you feel you’re lacking, start with 5lb weights, the small actions. As your strength grows, you’ll be able to push harder against larger adversity.

Do the little right things. Do the little scary things. This is how you make it possible to do the big things when it counts.

I love everything Eleanor Roosevelt. She spoke of how to develop courage:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run, it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

Do what to can to develop your courage to serve both yourself and especially those you lead.

A Leader Must Have Compassion…Even Love

With compassion, a leader always has the best interests of their people in mind. Their careers. Their families. Their aspirations. Their well-being.

People feel these things in a leader and respond with loyalty, a sense of well-being, and a true desire to follow that leader… and not just for the paycheck.

A leader people truly want to follow bleeds first and eats last.

I remember in Iraq in 2003, we had just crossed the bridge into a town called An Nasiriyah on the road to Baghdad. We wondered how U.S. Army trucks were there…ahead of us…and destroyed. We found out soon after, this was the lost convoy of Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch, the POW you may have heard about in the first days of the Iraq War.

I was standing guard near a little shop, obviously destroyed already by the ravages of war. I looked in the broken window and saw it was likely a small engine repair shop. I imagined the owner — an obscure Iraqi I’d never meet.

At that precise moment, I felt compassion for him. He’d lost what he worked for. His country was in turmoil. This shop was probably his whole life.

I didn’t know how to address this feeling meaningfully so I took out an MRE (meal ready to eat) and wrote “As-salamu Alaykum” which I was pretty sure meant “peace be upon you” in Arabic. I threw it in the window so when he came back later to pick up the pieces he’d find it.

I don’t know if he did and I don’t know if he cared or took it as I meant it, but he may have. Maybe he felt differently about “us” because of that. Maybe.

I only repeat this story as a personal example that having a heart that loves others despite circumstances felt very clearly to me at that very moment in time the best way to handle anything in life.


So how can a leader develop compassion or love?

They must choose it. They must love themselves first. Then they must choose the attitude that is sympathetic and caring for others. They must imagine themselves in another person’s shoes.

I can’t tell you how else to love. That is simply above my abilities as a fellow human. That is something you need to find. Just know you must find it to be the best kind of leader.

Final Thoughts

Try to remember Sergeant Kirkland walking into the open battlefield to aid his dying enemy when faced with a tough decision as a boss.

You won’t likely have to go this far in your role as a leader, but having that heart could someday make you a great leader.

Winston Churchill said:

“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

And Glenn Stewart reminds us:

If your leadership is truly grounded in love, you’ll always land in the category of a good leader.

Find courage. Show love.

When you develop these two critical bedrock qualities of leadership, the rest of your leadership now has firm ground to build upon.

And with that foundation, you may someday be a boss, no…a leader, who people will truly love to follow.

Family Man. Leader. 3x Top Writer. MBA Strategy and Management. Marine Corps Veteran. Winemaker.

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