Courage and Selflessness in Leadership

“Doing what’s right sometimes requires patience.”

Marcus Aurelius,
Meditations

 

Leadership is obviously more than about belting out rah-rah speeches, or a meme of Vladimir Putin riding a bear.

Leadership can be distilled into many facets — From staying calm in turbulent times, to communicating well with others, and thinking strategically.

But I think we’d all agree that the very pillar of being a leader is to simply do the right thing. That’s it. To act selflessly as a good person would, to do what’s best for other people, no matter how hard it is — Especially when no one is looking.

All of us are leaders at some point, because we all have responsibilities to carry, particularly in our personal lives — Whether that means being a student, or even a Mom, a Dad, a son or daughter, a partner, or a friend — And as I’m sure you already know, doing the right thing can be incredibly difficult.

There’s a brilliant character in Norse mythology called Tyr, a god of war who fought for peace. Rather than fitting into the archetype of a warmongering Aesir god, he is loved by many for his kindness and honesty. Though he loved wisdom as much as Odin did, he was never stingy in sharing his knowledge with others.

Tyr is often portrayed as having only one arm, and there’s a story to that.

One day, Tyr and the other gods of Asgard sought out to capture the three children of Loki (Stop imagining Tom Hiddleston for a minute) — The world serpent, Jormungandr, the would-be goddess of the underworld, Hel, and the monstrously giant wolf, Fenrir.

Fenrir, however, was too powerful. He broke every chain that the gods latched onto him, and worse, he was growing larger and larger by the day. If Fenrir was let loose, Asgard would be in grave danger. With the help of their master craftsmen, the gods finally came up with a chain called Gleipnir that was unlike any other — It was highly flexible, and though it was no thicker than a ribbon, Fenrir started to get worried.

“Try on this chain,” the gods told Fenrir. “We only want to see how strong you are. We know you will break it.” Suspicious that the gods would get a hold of him this time, Fenrir asked for a volunteer to put his or her arm in Fenrir’s mouth. So that if the chain really would bind him, the gods would at least have a cost to it.

When no one dared to step up to the plate, Tyr came forward and volunteered. As it went, Fenrir was successfully captured, and Tyr’s arm was devoured. The chain was to hold Fenrir in place until Ragnarök commenced.

That goes to show how Tyr really cared for the well-being of his people (and he wasn’t even king). Though it meant losing his arm, all that mattered to him was that everyone was safe.

If we look around us, we’re lucky to have real-life Tyrs out there who continue to inspire us today.

During my first year of History class, I vividly remember learning about Bendahara Tun Perak, a visier of the Malacca Sultanate, who was highly revered for his courage and selflessness. His character shone when his own son was unjustly murdered by the Sultan’s prince. Fighting off tears for his son, he refused to take revenge. Calming the angry mob around him, he uttered to them a Malay proverb, “Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat“, which roughly translates to “Let my child die, not my ethics.” Though he undoubtedly had every right to be angry, he still reminded himself that peace was the utmost priority. As a consequence of the prince’s actions, however, he was never crowned Sultan in Malacca.

We also have Harun al Rashid, a Caliph who had a habit of taking night walks in the streets of Baghdad. He would disguise himself as a commoner and sneak out of his palace long after dark, so that he could experience first-hand the troubles that his people might be facing.

In slightly more modern times, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s finest hour as President of the United States might have come when they were caught sending U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union. Many people urged him to bend the truth, or to at least pin the blame on his subordinates. But he refused to. “We will now just have to endure the storm,” he said — Implying that he was the one who would do the enduring. Some people might argue that such honesty does not have a place in politics. But for Eisenhower, it did. As one biographer put it, “(He) knew the difference between right and wrong, and tried to apply that knowledge to politics and diplomacy. That is why the country always trusted him.”

As you can see, sometimes doing what’s right requires us to give our “arm” — Whether that means taking a temporary blow to our reputation or ego, or giving up our resources like time and energy.

But if it’s for the common good, it’s always worth it. And as the stories above have ended well, so would ours.

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