The Basic Requirements of Being a Leader
The Medal of Honor is the United States government’s highest award for military valor. Among the recipients was a man who, under enemy fire from three sides, went in to rescue a fallen comrade, succeeding in the endeavor despite being shot himself. Another, having lost his right arm, continued fighting for his comrades with his remaining left arm, completing his assigned mission. Yet another placed himself as a decoy in order to assist in the retreat of his unit. Gallant and glorious are the stories. The Medal of Honor is the highest possible decoration for soldiers who have gone above and beyond the requirements of their missions, risking their own lives to resolutely support their comrades, even passing through a hail of enemy gunfire if need be.
I heard about this from a manager in our company who once was a sergeant in the US Army. He summed it up by saying, “They are truly brave people.” I thought to myself that there really are people in the world who are possessed of courage and grit. In our everyday lives, we seldom come across people who would go so far as to risk their own lives to help others. I was thinking how heartening it would be to have a boss or a staff member who wouldn’t shy away from self-sacrifice, motivated purely for the sake of colleagues rather than self-interest or money. The sergeant in question was a man of few words, soft-spoken and modest, generally not one to stand out. He was capable at his work, but not someone of outstanding talent. Even when he was promoted to a senior staff position some years ago, he didn’t demonstrate any particular excellence, and I gave him reviews that were a little above average. He certainly didn’t seem like the kind of person who would receive the Medal of Honor.
I continued to observe him for several years afterwards. He wasn’t a genius, but he was always diligent and continued in his personal growth. And when someone positioned below him had some kind of problem, he would always extend a helping hand, showing the right way forward. When clients were having difficulties, even issues that were hard to do anything about, he would patiently listen until the end and then make an effort to help in some way. Whenever I requested something, even if he was busy, he would make time for me and help finish the job. He was constantly assisting the people around him, lending a hand whenever needed. He never received any special reward for his efforts, just receiving a simple “Thank you” after helping out. And so it went, accumulating day by day over the 13 years that he has been working beside me.
Perhaps it is not just in war zones that people show their true selves after all? It was when I changed my perspective in this manner that I was finally able to start seeing things as they truly are. An accounting office may not be a battlefield where people give there lives, but the work can be exhausting. Thinking back on it, this sergeant continued day by day to put his staff, his clients, and his bosses ahead of himself. He never wavered in his belief that this was the right thing to do, while also never exaggerating his own worth, calmly carrying on with his work. It was only after 13 years of working together that I finally realized that, yes, this is in fact the essence of being a leader. Regardless of whether it’s a battlefield or the workplace, there is no difference in the essence of what it means to believe in and act on one’s mission to secure the safety and the development of one’s colleagues. If this sergeant and I had to fight together in a war and I got shot, I have no doubt that he would risk his life to come and rescue me. That’s because I have overcome any number of difficulties with him in the past, and I know that he has never shied away from selfless sacrifices to help those around him. That is the ultimate quality of a leader; a Medal of Honor recipient is simply given the opportunity to tangibly demonstrate this quality on the battle field. There are in fact people around us who have the potential to take such actions.
I have happened to be his boss for 13 years, but it is certainly not the case that someone working under you cannot be a leader. While always paying attention to renowned leaders, I have never realized that there was a great leader right beside me. Leaders come in many forms, but I have come to think that the basic requirements are to desire the growth of the people around you, to desire the success of the team, to take responsibility for those things, and to be so committed as to be willing to put your life on the line should that become necessary. To have a sense of mission about one’s work, and to build that up accordingly, layer by layer – that is what brings about trust and ultimately makes that person a leader.
I am proud to be associated with a leader like this sergeant. This is just one example, but I am sure that other staff members will be following behind managers who are indeed excellent, and will grow accordingly. I continue to remind myself that I need to be a leader, like the sergeant, that people really trust.