When I was a teenager, my grandfather, a captain in the Marines, told me a story about a general he met during the Vietnam War. When my grandfather went to meet this general, he found him making calls to save a group of Marines, after a rescue mission had turned into a full-scale battle.
The Marines have a creed to never abandon a fellow Marine, dead or alive. A group of Marines had been ambushed while trying to recover the bodies of another unit, and the next group that was sent in as reinforcements was also ambushed.
The general was desperately trying to save these young men. He turned to my grandfather with tears running down his cheeks and said, “My boys are dying out there.”
When my grandfather spoke of good leaders, this was often the anecdote he used.
A core trait of a good leader is to love the people you’re in charge of. The Han Dynasty text “Guiguzi” states, “One with talent but no kindness cannot command an army.”
How a leader regarded those in his charge was among the key traits that separated sage kings from tyrants. It was the virtue that determined whether a military leader cared about how his choices affected the well-being of his men, and whether a ruler cared about how a policy affected the everyday lives of his people.
In this same light, a boss can run an efficient and well-ordered company and still be hated by his employees. A man can have a well-ordered home and still be despised by his wife.
The reason is that being able to lead does not necessarily make someone a good leader. Efficiency, order, and even tangible results are not always the mark of a good leader. History is filled with great leaders who weren’t necessarily good men, and while their accomplishments might have been far-reaching, they left tainted legacies.
A Leader’s Compassion
In the early 1700s, Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote in the “Hagakure,” a manual for the samurai, that “the reason why people still revere the sages of the three ancient kingdoms is because of the vastness and extent of their compassion.”
Tsunetomo said that he was aware of what constituted valor and wisdom, but he had only recently come to grasp what compassion was. He cited Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the first Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, who stated: “If the ruler loves his retainers and the people as his children, they, in turn, will think of the ruler as their parent. The principle underlying governance of a peaceful realm is compassion.”
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had similar views on leadership. In his “Nicomachean Ethics” from the mid-300s B.C., he referred to politics as the “supreme and most authoritative art” in the aspiration toward goodness.
Cultivation of Virtue
His views were based on the idea that moral goodness and the cultivation of virtue were the true sources of joy; and that in the context of politics, a true leader would embody traits of goodness and virtue, and would, in turn, nurture these values in his people. Politics was something done for the benefit of others, through the pursuit of virtue.
“The deviation from monarchy is tyranny, for both are forms of one-man rule, but there is the greatest difference between them: The tyrant looks to his own advantage; the king, to that of his subjects,” Aristotle wrote.
“For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things, and such a man needs nothing further. Therefore, he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects, for a king who is not like that would be a mere titular king.”
Aristotle added that tyranny was the opposite of this principle, since “the tyrant pursues his own good.”
As an example, we can look to the Chinese military classic “Tai Gong Six Secret Teachings” by Jiang Ziya. In it, King Wen, who founded the Zhou Dynasty, asks him how to administer a state where the ruler is honored and the people are content.
Jiang Ziya replied, “Just love the people.”
King Wen responded by asking what this meant in practice, and was given an explanation of principles that included protecting jobs, keeping taxes low, and, as a leader, avoiding acting out of self-interest and corruption.
“Thus, one who excels at administering a state governs the people as parents govern their beloved children or as an older brother acts towards his beloved younger brother,” Jiang Ziya said. “When they see their hunger and cold, they are troubled for them. When they see their labors and suffering, they grieve for them.”
Emperor T’ang of ancient China was said to embody these virtues. The ancient text “Huainanzi” described him thusly: “His virtue and kindness flowed everywhere, so that the oppressed and poor were relieved. He comforted those who mourned for the dead; he inquired after the sick and fed the orphan and the widow. The people clung to him with affection; his commands were readily obeyed in the country.”
Broadness of Mind
Benevolent leaders also possess a broadness of mind—the ability to see the bigger picture and to guide people along a road that leads them to the best outcome. This requires the consideration of multiple viewpoints, not taking the easy and comfortable path, while being thoughtful of the needs and wants of others.
Benevolence was seen as going hand in hand with governance, and this was a common theme across many cultures. Guidance on how to achieve this was outlined in many classic texts for leaders. “The Warrior’s Rule” by Tsugaru Kodo-shi states this plainly: “Civil administration consists of two things only: benevolence and governance. Benefits are bestowed by virtue of benevolence; regulations are established by governance. Then government is right.”
The ancients also warned against micromanagement and tyrannical control of individuals down to individual actions. In ancient China, the powers of the state didn’t stretch below the county level, and good leaders looked to the wisdom and insights of those around them to develop a broadness of mind.
The Confucian text “Kung Tzu Chia Yu” (“The School Sayings of Confucius”) states that “fish avoid streams with clear water; a man too judicious amasses no followers.” In this same light, those who micromanage and who are overly judgmental of minor flaws often find themselves without the loyalty and respect of those they’re in charge of.
American President and former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant showed his ability to leverage the individual insights of his men and their ability to improvise in strategy as the situation demanded. He stated, “I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to exercise it in your own way.”
It was also understood that to attract wise counsel, leaders needed to exercise good values and a love for their own people. The “Three Strategies” by Huang Shigong states: “If your benevolence extends to the people, then wise men will take to you; if your benevolence reaches all creatures, then sages will take to you. If wise men take to you, your country will be strong; if sages take to you, the whole world will be united.”
The purpose of wise counsel wasn’t for selfish aims, however. The “Three Strategies” notes that the goal is the goodness of the society itself.
It states: “Those who can help the world when in danger can thus establish peace in the world. Those who can eliminate the world’s anxieties can thus experience the world’s pleasures. Those who can save the world from calamity can thus obtain the blessings of the world.”
Joshua Philipp is a senior investigative reporter for The Epoch Times.