Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.
Harold S. Geneen
During the 1950-1953 Korean War, American fighter pilots dominated the skies, even though the Soviet-made MiG-15 jets were faster and more nimble than the American F-80 and F-86s. The difference wasn’t the technology—it was the battle-tested American veterans flying the aircraft that made the difference. In the military, we often speak of our people as a “human weapon system” as a way to understand the central role of humans in war. Put more simply: military leaders are in the people business. Knowing the people we lead and taking care of their welfare is therefore integral to military leadership. It isn’t just military leaders, but all leaders who are in the people business.
Know Your People
The fundamental difference between leadership and management is “people.” We manage things, programs, and processes–we lead people. Spreadsheets don’t respond to charisma, and no one cares if the bench stock is feeling “off” that day. A manager can maintain control over stuff and processes without caring or even knowing much about what they’re actually managing. Not so with leadership. Successful leaders understand their mission depends on knowing who their people are and what they’re capable of doing. Clearly, there’s some practical reasons for knowing your people on a personal level. Everyone has their own quirks and talents, and being able to assign work commensurate with your team members’ skills is vital to performance. An effective leader will not hesitate to push people to be their best, but will never push people beyond their limits. Those limits are impossible to know if leaders don’t connect on a personal level with the people they lead.
There is a deeper reason to know your people, however, and one tied even more closely to organizational performance and your team members’ welfare. If you know your people and understand them, you will take your team to the next level in performance, they’ll be more engaged, and the workplace will be a better place to work. People respond to other people they know actually care for their welfare. In fact, when people understand they’re valued as persons first by their boss they’re much more engaged and loyal in return. Each year, Fortune Magazine puts out the 100 Best Companies to Work For. In order to make the list, Fortune partners with Great Place to Work to conduct random surveys of employees in nominated companies. Two-thirds of the final score came from employee evaluations of things like management credibility and camaraderie. Good scores on surveys like that come from companies where leaders are connected and employees feel like they have a mission, not just a paycheck.
Look Out For Their Welfare
Inspiring people to engage and perform is only half the job; the rest of the job is taking care of the teams’ welfare. In the military, it means providing for people’s needs, and as well preparing them for their mission. Leaders have a responsibility to put their teammates welfare above their own. The shorthand for all of that is Leaders Eat Last. If the troops are cold, so are you. If they’re eating meals out of a bag, so are you. If they’re in danger, then you’re leading them from the front. Leaders make sure the troops are fed and bedded down before taking a single comfort for themselves. In this way, military leaders demonstrate their commitment to never treat the troops’ welfare casually, and that breeds trust in the leader’s decisions.
The same concept easily applies to civilian life. Be sure the work area is safe, pay a fair wage, make sure you’re willing to share their hardships. If they have to stay late, you stay with them. The occasional pizza for that late night doesn’t hurt either. Leaders have to put their teams ahead of themselves–eating last–or else risk losing credibility with those they lead. On top of that, celebrate your teammates’ success and cry with them during tragedy. Remember birthdays and learn about what your teams do for fun, and about their families. Doing that, being authentic, will ensure your team understands you care about their welfare.
There is an enormous difference between the person who sees leadership as a means of controlling others, and the leader who sees leadership as a responsibility to serve others. Leaders who know their people and look after their welfare are able to get their mission done and help others be the best they can be.