Mobile, Alabama, native Eugene Bondurant “Sledgehammer” Sledge (1923-2001) fought with the elite 7th Marine Division. An enlisted man, he was called upon to take part in some of the most vicious fighting in World War II, that in the Pacific. While Civil War General William T. Sherman got to the heart of it with his pithy comment that “War is hell,” from Sledge’s detailed account of the war in the Pacific, that experience was far more hellish than anything Sherman saw.
An enlisted man, Sledge chronicled his experiences in the acclaimed memoir With the Old Breed (Oxford University Press, 1990). My interest in leadership caused me to gravitate to Sledge’s observations of what constitutes a great leader. Some of his most powerful lessons concern his first combat commander, a man revered by his men. Sledge said of Capt. “Ack Ack” Haldane:
“Although he insisted on strict discipline, the captain was a quiet man who gave orders without shouting. He had a rare combination of intelligence, courage, self-confidence, and compassion that commanded our respect and admiration. We were thankful that Ack Ack was our skipper, felt more secure in it, and felt sorry for other companies not so fortunate. While some officers on Pavuvu thought it necessary to strut or order us around to impress us with their status, Haldane quietly told us what to do. We loved him for it and did the best job we knew how.”
Intelligence, courage, self-confidence, and compassion. Imagine just how that compassion shown by a commander in WWII combat appeared to his men. Some of us think that compassion equates to weakness. No, indeed. The really great leaders understand that compassion is a foundational trait. It must be learned, practiced, and taught to others. For compassion in a leader is an announcement to all in his/her sphere of influence that he/she is human.
A leader’s compassion practiced and demonstrated over days and months becomes a key role-modeling vehicle for co-workers to imitate, acting out humanely when daily operational tasks are set aside in the face of critical situations, those demanding urgent decisions—on any battlefield of their lives.
That almost everyone, all leaders included, come equipped with many of the same behavioral weaknesses that those in their charge have is proof that mistakes should be avoided but are not avoidable. That’s predictable, but with practice and awareness of the need to practice, leaders and “soldiers” alike, are able to act with deathless understanding—compassion—when it is needed in everyday and urgent situations in the field and on the job.
Sledge goes on to say that, “Our company commander represented stability and direction in a world of violence, death and destruction.” Few of us will be called upon to lead others in a war zone with the threat of death on every hand. But much happens daily in any organization that becomes our version of a mortal combat with great human, financial, and material consequences if the conflict is not prosecuted successfully. That’s where a leader’s stability becomes as critical to communicate and to use as compassion.
Several years ago I was asked to give one key attribute of a great leader. I answered “predictability.” The interviewer, somewhat taken aback, said “Well, I’ve never considered that value. . . .” Yet haven’t we all worked for unpredictable individuals? Around such individuals in the midst of turmoil your unconscious is fearful and unsure, feeling “What in the world will he say and do next?” Not much of a security “guard” in difficult times, is a leader like that—an unpredictable one. As I have often said, a great leader must be the calm eye of the hurricane, not the leading edge, packing remorseless winds and a devastating storm surge in his/her destructive and unpredictable path. As you know, since 1979, North Atlantic hurricanes are named alternately for men and women! What does that suggest?
In With the Old Breed, readers learn that Sledge’s commander, Captain Haldane, was killed in heavy combat on the island of Peleliu in September of 1944. In the midst of his grief, Sledge wrote that “[Losing Haldane] was like losing a parent we depended upon for security – not our physical security, because we knew that was a commodity beyond our reach in combat, but our mental security.”
Leading others (and ourselves) is really hard work. The reason for this difficulty is that we are the most complex of all the Lord’s creations. But what we need is often quite simple for continuing well in what we do: respect in the eyes of others. That respect Capt. Haldane was given is ensured leaders, however, only by their demonstrating predictably three key behaviors: compassion for co-workers every day and in the most severe circumstances alike; predictable understanding that co-workers need to feel emotionally secure at work as strongly as they know they are physically secure at their desks; and the leader’s prime commitment to the hard work of being a leader, just as Capt. Haldane showed E.B. Sledge and the others in their unit that he was committed to the battle till the end.
If those three pledges to employees are met to the letter and the spirit, the rewards can be majestic in the degree of respect and devotion great leaders discover in the heat of battle.
Thanks to my editor Linda W Hobson Ph.D. for her contribution to this essay.