“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
General Colin Powell
Here we are at our final stop on the leadership journey through SERVANT Leadership. I would argue we saved the best for last as I believe this point is a cornerstone principle for any leader. The letter “T” in Servant Leadership is one of my fundamental beliefs in leadership: Take care of your people, and people will take care of the mission—the Nation’s treasure is entrusted to you!
As you study leadership, you often hear about mission-oriented leaders and people-oriented leaders. In fact, if you Google “mission-oriented leadership versus people-oriented leadership”, you will get over 32 million hits. There have been volumes written on this topic and it seems everyone has an opinion. If you had a group of leaders in a room you would find they would fall somewhere along the continuum, from people-oriented leaders on the right to mission-oriented on the left. So here is a perspective to consider: why not choose both? I reject the notion that a leader needs to choose one or the other.
There is no question as a leader that you have a mission to accomplish and your responsibility is to get it done. However, you will find that your most precious and important resource to accomplish that mission is the people you lead. After all, if you did not have people in your organization, you would only be leading yourself; and really, that makes you a doer vice a leader.
When the people in your organization wake up in the morning and get ready for a bright new day full of opportunities, I am willing to bet that they do not say, “How can I mess up today?” People generally want to do a good job and add value to their organization. So embrace your role in helping your team thrive and take care of them. Seek out opportunities to demonstrate that they are important to you and you truly care about them. However, it cannot be lip service because your team will see right through the façade … you need to be genuine!
Let me share a story of what this looks like in action. My daughter is in the Air Force. I was impressed one day when I got an e-mail from her squadron commander informing me of her upcoming promotion and inviting me to participate via video teleconference while I was deployed. This act of reaching out required effort, foresight, and a mindset that values people … it demonstrated to me that this is a caring leader. It would have been easy to not reach out, to not make this a special event, and just go through the motions. However, he chose to care for my daughter by going the extra mile to make this a truly special and memorable ceremony for our family. Quite simply, this is what right looks like!
As John C. Maxwell stated, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Many times this will involve sacrifice on your part. There is a book titled Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek … I commend it to you for learning why leaders should eat last. Do you care about your people? What would they say? If you do, that is great—keep it up! If you think you need some work in this area, keep this acronym in mind and CARE for your people:
- Continually look for opportunities to demonstrate that your people are important
- Actions speak louder than words, so walk the talk
- Realize this takes sacrifice and effort on your part to Respond genuinely
- Enjoy leading a high-performing team
One of the classic movies in my lifetime is TOP GUN. In fact, when it came out in 1986, I was at Field Training for the Air Force and we got to watch the film. I was inspired and motivated by the action scenes and some of the leadership lessons. This point about caring for your people is clearly illustrated toward the end of the movie. You might recall when Maverick went to his commanding officer Viper’s home to seek his advice. It was on a Sunday, his wife welcomed Maverick into their home. And then Viper proceeded to tell Maverick the story about his dad’s heroic actions, lay out potential courses of action, and then encourage Maverick by relating to what he was struggling with.
Viper: I flew with your old man. VF-51, the Oriskany. You’re a lot like he was. Only better… and worse. He was a natural heroic son of a bitch that one.
Maverick: So he did do it right.
Viper: Yeah, he did it right… Is that why you fly the way you do? Trying to prove something? Yeah, your old man did it right. What I’m about to tell you is classified. It could end my career. We were in the worst dogfight I ever dreamed of. There were bogeys like fireflies all over the sky. His F-4 was hit, and he was wounded, but he could’ve made it back. He stayed in it, saved three planes before he bought it.
Maverick: How come I never heard that before?
Viper: Well, that’s not something the State Department tells dependents when the battle occurred over the wrong line on some map.
Maverick: So you were there?
Viper: I was there. What’s on your mind?
Maverick: My options, sir.
Viper: Simple. First you’ve acquired enough points to show up tomorrow and graduate with your Top Gun class, or you can quit. There’d be no disgrace. That spin was hell, it would’ve shook me up.
Maverick: So you think I should quit?
Viper: I didn’t say that. The simple fact is you feel responsible for Goose and you have a confidence problem. Now I’m not gonna sit here and blow sunshine up your ass, Lieutenant. A good pilot is compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned. Up there, we gotta push it. That’s our job. It’s your option, Lieutenant. All yours.
Maverick: Sorry to bother you on a Sunday, sir, but thank you very much for your time.
Viper: No problem. Good luck.
Fast forward and Maverick shows up to graduation. Viper looks over to Maverick and pays a huge compliment when he states, “You’ll pick up your RIO when you get to the ship, and if you don’t, give me a call. I’ll fly with you.” Viper empowered and encouraged Maverick–this is leadership in action!
So what will you do when you take over an organization and realize that some of your people are needlessly in harm’s way? What will you do when your star performer asks you if he can depart for his next assignment a month early to secure base housing for his family? What will you do when someone you previously served with asks for a letter of recommendation? What will you do when one of your members is deployed and you find out their spouse needs help with something like a broken appliance? You will do the right thing and lead from the front. I’ve found over the years that simple things mean a great deal and people appreciate a caring leader.
On my re-deployment from Afghanistan, I was sitting in the Dining Facility (DFAC) waiting to board our airplane for the ride home. A Major in the Air Force joined me for breakfast. As we were talking, he shared his three areas for leadership success: be the best officer you can be, be the best in your grade, and take care of Airmen … it is that simple. I shared with him that my last post on Servant Leadership was exactly that point so I thought it appropriate to conclude with his simple lesson. Take care of your people and they will amaze you each day with their creativity and performance. Never forget that it should be your honor to take care of them each day while they take care of accomplishing the mission!