The movie Master and Commander (2003) tells the story of Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew on their British man-of-war in pursuit of a French man-of-war during the Napoleonic wars. The entire movie is a fascinating study of character, conduct in difficult situations, and principles of leadership.


One subplot follows a young midshipman, Mr. Hollom, who lacks self-confidence and the ability to lead firmly and consistently. The crew does not respect him, and bullies him without secrecy. When Captain Aubrey notices one of the carpenters deliberately run into Hollom in passing without apologizing and saluting, Aubrey has the carpenter whipped and brings Hollom into his quarters to speak with him. The dialogue is as follows*:

Jack: A man pushed past you, without making his obedience, and yet you said nothing. Why?

Hollom: I intended to, sir, but the right words didn’t…

Jack: The right words? He was deliberately insubordinate.

Hollom: I’ve tried to get to know the men, sir, and be friendly, but they’ve taken a set against me. Always whispering when I go past and giving me looks. I’ll set that to rights. I’ll be much tougher on them.

Jack: You don’t make friends with the foremastjacks, lad. They’ll despise you in the end, think you weak. Nor do you need to be a tyrant.

Hollom: No, sir. I’m very sorry, sir.

Jack: You’re, what? 26? 27?

Hollom: I’m 30 next Friday, sir.

Jack: Thirty? You’ve failed to pass for lieutenant twice. I know you have, but you’re not a bad sailor. But you can’t spend your life a midshipman.

Hollom: No, sir. I will try much harder, sir.

Jack: Look, Hollom, it’s leadership they want. Strength. Now, you find that within yourself, and you will earn their respect. Without respect, true discipline goes by the board.

Hollom: Yes, sir. Um… Strength, respect… and discipline, sir.

Jack: Well… it’s an unfortunate business, Hollom. Damned unfortunate.That will be all.

Three Elements to Leading With Compassion

Leading with Compassion Itself

Though he begins authoritatively and almost harshly, Aubrey knew how to approach the situation once he got into the conversation. He was able to gauge from Hollom’s reaction that Hollom needed some guiding principles and he needed to be taught out of compassion, but also needed to be aware that he could do better. Aubrey says, in so many words, that Hollom can either rise to his potential, or find a new vocation, one that would suit him better. By letting Hollom know that he is aware of his situation and capabilities, Aubrey intended to motivate Hollom to succeed in whatever capacity he was best suited, as opposed to putting him down for not succeeding in his current capacity.

Apply This to Business

It is imperative that your “crew”, or staff, know that you are just, aware, and compassionate. If your staff never see your compassionate side, they only know you as a dictator, and therefore will question your ability to lead. Learn to motivate your staff by being aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and their added results and value to your team, and help them to find the best capacity in which they can contribute and succeed. By so doing, you will help to strengthen their confidence and they will learn to accentuate their strengths and improve in their weaknesses.

Leading With Intellect

Captain Aubrey was also intelligent enough to recognize how to handle the situation that could potentially be difficult to handle; Aubrey needed to balance maintaining the standards of excellent leadership while still helping Hollom with his individual needs. He gave punishment where it was due, maintaining his authority with the crew, maintaining his authority with Hollom by beginning the conversation with the standards of leadership he expects, then tending to Hollom’s individual needs.

Apply This to Business

Whatever your situation may be in your business, being aware and compassionate is once again the key to this principle. It is absolutely possible to maintain the standard of excellence and leadership within your business and still cater to individual needs when appropriate. Getting to know your staff on an individual level — their strengths and weaknesses, and how these contribute to their role in your team and your vision — will help you to gauge how to approach situations that require you to be present.

Leading With Emotion

Captain Aubrey used his emotion in a positive way in his conversation with Hollom. He was able to show Hollom his passion for the standards he had established from the beginning, while still demonstrating his deep-seated conviction that humanity deserves opportunities to rise to the occasion. He also used his emotion in an appropriate way when he demonstrated his severity to the crew as he determined a punishment, once again showing his passion for the standards he had established from the beginning.

Apply This to Business

Letting your staff know about your passion for the work you do is important, not only because it helps motivate them, but it also allows you to set the standards of excellency you expect. Appropriately showing your emotion in one-on-one conversations with staff —towards your work and towards the employees themselves — can help them see their potential and motivate them, as mentioned above.

The Rest of the Story

The character Hollom unfortunately ends up committing suicide because he did not believe in himself. At his funeral, one of the crew members opens up to a passage in the Bible, telling Jonah’s story, whose name the crew used to label people as cursed. The captain upholds his legacy of campassion by  closing the book and continuing to say that every man is worthy, a part of the crew, and deserves a chance. He commemorates Hollom and makes sure that his memory is a positive one. This is truly great leadership.

*dialogue taken from and original movie

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