“A man has integrity if his interest in the good of the service is at all times greater than his personal pride, and when he holds himself to the same line of duty when unobserved as he would follow if his superiors were present”
– General S.L.A. Marshall
It was very dark and cold on the flightline at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base where teams of Airmen and a Kuwaiti contractor were working furiously in the desert night to repair a critical fuel line prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The fuel line had been damaged in the 1991 war, and we were racing the calendar to get fuel to the airplanes who would launch the opening of the liberation of Iraq. No one knew the exact date we’d “go north,” but we all knew it was soon. Getting the air base ready for combat was our purpose.
As I made the rounds checking on my engineers and talking with the contractors, I made sure to thank them for the very important work they were doing. The Airmen were in cold and miserable conditions, but all of them were upbeat and positive. “Sir, we know this project is important and we’re proud to be here!” one of them said in the darkness. He knew what was coming and was excited because he was doing his mission. Our Kuwaiti site superintendent gave me the most moving response, however. When I shook his hand and thanked him for his work, in heavily accented English he said simply, “Sir, it is our duty.”
The Myth vs Reality of Military Leadership
Watch almost any military story told on film and you’ll eventually meet the “Colonel Jessup” character–you know, the guy who feels the insignia on his sleeve or collar entitles him to give orders that are followed without question. It’s a popular myth, but it is a myth. While there are certainly occasions for swift and decisive action, good leaders know people aren’t robots and need to know the “why,” especially if there’s danger involved. Further, and more to the point, when leaders give their people a purpose larger than themselves instead of just a paycheck, their relationship transcends the transactional and enters the realm of high performance.
We actually do an exceptional job in the military of giving people a higher purpose to attach to themselves and their work. It’s part of the military leadership model to ensure the team understands and to the maximum extent possible buys into the mission. In war, especially modern war, we expect even the most junior leaders to understand their commander’s purpose and even anticipate that commander’s decisions. The military orders process includes rehearsals and detailed explanations of the plan. We explain how individual tasks fit into the overall plan. Furthermore, military leaders know our work is dangerous and so spend a great deal of energy motivating their teams to understand the risks and why those risks might be necessary.
It’s the same in the day-to-day training environment. Leaders spend energy personally helping the entire team, from the newest “one-striper” the the seasoned veterans understand and appreciate their contribution to the overall mission. It’s common for people to be able to connect even the most mundane tasks to the mission of the larger unit–it’s often the unit motto. “We fuel the warfighter!”, “No comm, no bomb!”–you get the idea. Regardless of whether someone is carrying a rifle, flying a plane, cooking a meal, or repairing an air conditioner, he knows how his particular job contributes to the larger mission.
Private Sector Companies Get It Too
The most successful private sector companies are very good at giving their employees a purpose instead of just a paycheck. There are loads of great examples, but Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) and Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) are among my favorite examples. REI sells outdoor apparel and equipment, and SpaceX is in the space launch business. Despite being in vastly different industries, they have many things in common. Both companies are innovators, with REI crushing their competitors with record sales and profits, and SpaceX setting a new standard for space launch. They also have something else in common: they are impressively successful at giving their team members a sense of higher purpose–a mission. For REI, their mission is to get people outside to enjoy the great outdoors; SpaceX is going to Mars.
To these teams, their purpose is a greater motivation than the bottom line. To be sure, profit and loss statements are the lifeblood of any business—but the heart and soul of that business is the purpose. Leaders who can inspire by connecting individual effort to the overall mission of the organization are the ones who can get high performance from their teams. When that purpose itself is inspirational, so much the better. Case in point is the video below—SpaceX employees cheering the launch and landing of their Falcon 9 rocket like it was the Super Bowl. That sort of excitement doesn’t come from a good compensation package. It comes from visionary leadership energizing the team with the knowledge they’re part of something important. It’s no surprise then, that REI is in an elite category for outdoor equipment and SpaceX is about to launch the same rocket for the second time dramatically lowering the cost of space travel.
Inspire Them, Lead Them
Not everyone is going to Mars or helping people enjoy the great outdoors, but every business leader can help their teams understand their contribution to society and community. Retailers supply the needs and wants of the community, service industry businesses are the fuel for other businesses, city service providers keep the community clean and healthy. All but the most esoteric of luxury businesses contribute directly to the well-being and success of the community. The lesson is this: If you want to lead your organizations to high performance, the inspire them first by giving them a purpose, not just a paycheck.