Exemplary Leaders Know to Care

Americans have long placed a high premium on their business, political and military leaders being tough and hard-nosed, or at least appearing so.  While blatantly weak leadership is obviously not virtuous, behavioral values associated with compassion don’t seem nearly as highly valued for leaders in our society.

And yet, in my various supervisory roles in the energy industry I’ve found that caring about others, especially subordinates, is both personally rewarding and a necessary attribute for success as a leader.  In addition, I recently participated in a Coast Guard training session in which leaders were reminded that, in a crisis, “people want to know you care, before they care what you know.”

In my readings lately on leaders I’ve found additional support for the view that character and caring about others are indeed mandatory leadership qualities.

I would not have expected to find the importance of caring so pronounced among military brass.  In his book American Generalship, author Edgar Puryear analyzed more than 100 of his interviews with generals and admirals to understand how they developed as leaders and what led to their success.  In addition to the qualities you would expect, like decision-making, delegating and knowing your stuff, Puryear includes a chapter he labels “consideration.”

In it, he quotes former Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, who succeeded Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 – 1997 and died in 2011:  “I cannot overstate the importance of character and caring.  I think that people respond best to leaders that are confident because they know what they’re doing, because they are men of character, and because it shows that they deeply care for those they lead.”

Two of the standout military leaders Puryear writes about are former generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s 34th president, and George C. Marshall, who held numerous top Army and governmental roles during and after World War II, and for whom the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe was named.

It is just a coincidence, as far as I know, that Generals Eisenhower and Marshall were two of the nine distinguished Americans whom New York Times author David Brooks profiled in his 2015 book The Road to Character.

Caring is undeniably an integral part of character, Puryear reports.  “In the commander’s personal humanity lies his ultimate strength.”