Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Motivating employees through leadership trials

Do you recall being so tired that you could just sleep where you sat down?  Or you dozed off at the wheel while driving every time you blinked, the blinks got longer?  Generally that comes from exhaustion or a lack of restful sleep.  If you ever served in the infantry then you know what I mean.  Carrying a combat load of upwards of 65 lbs on your back in a pack over miles of difficult terrain for days is physically exhausting, and then returning to regular civilization can be equally exhausting.  Yet time and again, I saw a different attitude in people when they were the person in charge of the excursion, or the leader.   When people were part of the squad or fireteam with no responsibilities to lead, they shouldered their heavy burden and trudged along with either words of gripe about this or that, or they would be deep in thought about something else and focused on how much being in the infantry really sucked right at that moment in time.  I recall many such thoughts.  Yet when the same individual was tapped to lead the squad and had to make sure everyone was hydrated, and still physically able to keep up with the squad, the leader didn't seem to mind the distance, terrain or heavy burden he was carrying and in fact would often run up and down his line to make sure everyone else was OK.  Where did that burst of energy come from?  The same individual that was just so exhausted had forgotten his exhaustion and a shot of adrenaline had kicked in because he was in charge and had to make sure that not only was he personally squared away, but all of his charges as well as their leader.   

Why is that?  Why is it that something that could be so straining and exhaustive when you are following others and seems impossible to accomplish becomes trivially easy when you add the responsibilities of having to motivate and encourage others to do the same, follow and/or keep up?  It is the leader's job to keep everyone motivated, focused and on target to do the right thing.  The individual who believes in leading by example has to actually live a leader's life of personal sacrifice which is a tough life to live in the infantry.  It means less sleep, rest, food, water, personal time to take care of yourself.  Motivation is not a one size fits all solution in any organization, but leadership is a key motivator.

In my book, motivation in a work environment is achieved when individuals are known for their strengths and contributions and individually challenged.  The idea is to turn everyone in an organization into a leader who believes in leading by example and is occupied in his/her mind with keeping others motivated and encouraged.  You can only accomplish this by having people on board that are all capable of leading or being a leader.  If you bring 'A' players onto your team who care only about themselves, gripe about their environment or other problems and let their issues affect their work or other people's work, it takes what could be a great team down to the level of good or ordinary.  Great teams are built with interchangeable members who all have the potential to lead at one point or on some task or project with unselfishness as their key leadership trait.  These types of individuals generally don't want to lead because they know how hard and risky leadership actually is to achieve high performance.  A bunch of 'B' players can be valuable members and drive  'A' performance results for a team.  This probably defies logic, but 'A' player individuals from top tier schools tend to be selfish in their interests rather than selfless leaders (it goes with the territory of being graduates of top-tier schools and being 'A' players).

I'm not saying all good leaders are reluctant leaders as there are exceptions to everything, but going back to the infantry anyone who volunteers to do something for personal gain of things like pay, benefits, title or sense of entitlement and draws their primary motivation from those things probably isn't fit to even be on my team.  Those people are mediocre or average performers on their best days despite thinking they are 'A' players.  They give far from their true capabilities and act as individuals making it difficult for a team as a group to generate high performance.  Look at your  own current leaders who head departments, chair committees, lead companies, or may otherwise be the head honchos.  Do they lead selflessly and demonstrate through their actions and words that they care more about supporting you or the organization than they they do about themselves, their agenda, their initiatives, reputation or pet projects?  If you can truly say that they do, then I'll wager you're working for a high performance organization that is going to be around for a long time, and is led by leaders who understand how to motivate employees.

For most organizations including public and private enterprise it is rare to find leaders who keenly understand individual motivation as a means of rewarding employees and subscribe to using it over some cookie cutter standard performance appraisal system or generic assessment to try to get a consistent rating system for employees.  That generic system is to make it easier for the organization, not to optimize the motivation of the individual employee contributing to the team.  Those cookie-cutter performance appraisals with unobtainable goals don't work to get high performance out of motivated employees.  Those performance appraisals are far more subjective than objective and most of the employees know they are subject to their boss's whim.

However, nothing works better for motivating employees than a trial at leadership and putting employees in charge of things for a period with full support to see how things turn out like the Celebrity Apprentice (I hate all reality TV shows, but that's a different subject).  This approach works well in the infantry to evaluate small unit leadership and from what I've figured out after 20 years in business roles is that most people in business act the same way that people in the infantry act.  Human nature, it turns out, really is accelerated in the infantry because the lifespan of infantrymen is fairly short especially those who have been in ground combat.  A requisite for leadership positions in my book is that people are disqualified for a job opening if they apply for the position without being asked to apply.  If you applied that requisite to your employer, current boss or elected leaders, how would they stand up to that qualifier?  Do you think someone had to tell them to apply, talk them into accepting the job, or do you think they just seized an opportunity on the vacancy?


  1. This is a great article and so very true!

    USMC '87-'97

  2. True True.
    The first time I got to lead it made me a better Marine. Even though it was temporary, it was a big morale booster.
    0311/13 '87-'91