I bet you thought a leader needs them all, right? Me too, but if you could only choose one, which would it be? I was asked that very question back in 2013 while participating in the Department of Defense (DoD) Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP). Before I share my response, let me provide you with a bit of information to paint a better picture for why the question was asked.
The ELDP is a very challenging nine-month program in which sixty-two DoD professionals (government civilians and military) from all services come together to gain extensive exposure to the roles and missions of the department as a whole as well as to gain an increased understanding and appreciation for the challenges faced by today’s Warfighters. The program has been around since 1985 and is the only leadership program within DoD that provides government civilians with intensive “hands-on” field experience.
Hands-on field experience for government civilians, really? I know, but truth be told, even I, your typical “desk” jockey with no military background and a passion for research was forced out of my comfort zone. Hands-on field experience in this case means, I did a whole lot of things that scared me to death; things our military service members must do every day to prepare for various missions. I jumped from an airborne training tower, rappelled off a 34-foot wall, flew in a tactically configured military aircraft, and navigated my way out of a heavily wooded area in a remote location. Actually, I may not have navigated my way out so well, but you get the point. I got to experience just a tiny bit of what our Warfighters must do to be at the “tip of the spear.”
In addition to training, I got to travel to many military installations around the country as well as overseas and I was incredibly blessed to meet and learn from some great service members from all branches of the military (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard). I also got to learn from some pretty incredible leaders, both military and civilian at the highest levels. All of which leads me to the question at hand. In preparation for all of the adventures we, “ELDPers” were going to experience, our senior trainer asked, “what is more important for a leader to possess: competence, courage or compassion?” Surprisingly, only two people said competence. The remaining 60 individuals were equally divided between courage and compassion. Competence, it was concluded, was needed but NOT the most important because everyone thought a leader could surround themselves with smart people to get the job done, but courage and compassion could not be delegated. Here is how the conversation played out.
Individuals stated that courage is a universally admired virtue. It is what everybody wants because courage symbolizes good character that makes us worthy of respect. Leaders need respect for people to follow. Leaders need courage because they are faced with a diverse set of challenges each and every day. With courage, a great leader will act even in the face of fear, stand up for what is right even when it is hard, and show strength when dealing with pain or grief to keep everyone moving forward. To be a courageous leader is not for the faint of heart, it requires boldness, fearlessness, and guts. Toughness is a required core attribute. Without a courageous leader to follow, people within an organization may never gain the confidence needed to move forward when difficult situations arise. They closed with a Winston Churchill quote: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Individuals for compassion agreed that courage is important just NOT the most important. They argued too many leaders these days manage with the balance sheet, often times at the expense of their employees. They are courageous in taking risks often times without thinking through the impacts those decisions may have on the individuals that work for them. Compassionate leaders have high emotional intelligence and recognize that talented people want to work for leaders and organizations that truly care about them and the communities in which they operate. When a leader appreciates them, and is concerned about their well-being they feel inspired. People who feel warmth from the leader, and a sense of belonging within the organization will accomplish more tasks, produce higher quality work and desire to go the extra mile to make a difference without ever being asked. They concluded that a compassionate leader has courage within them. Compassion leads them to stand up for what is right, be bold in the face of fear and be tough when required. However, they disagreed that courageous leaders are always compassionate reiterating their point that leaders without compassion do not put the emphasis on people but rather on profit or mission. Compassionate leaders know that by taking care of their people those items will come regardless because everybody is inspired by the vision and has witnessed the action.
Now that you have heard both sides what do you think is the most important attribute for a leader to possess: competence, courage or compassion? I agree ALL of the attributes are important; however, I could only choose one so I chose compassion. What about you?
I am excited to hear your thoughts on the topic!