TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – There are huge responsibilities levied upon leaders in our profession; accomplish the mission, uphold good order and discipline and take care of our people. Some expectations are easily quantifiable, like mission accomplishment (measured by on-time rates, aircraft generation data, etc.) and good order and discipline (assessed through status of discipline meetings, number of Uniformed Code of Military Justice or legal infractions). It is more difficult to judge how well we take care of our people. The failing isn’t the lack of a metric, rather not fully recognizing (or remembering) that taking care of people is directly related to mission accomplishment.
One of the best ways to take care of people is to know them. Since it is well documented that what gets measured gets emphasized and ultimately gets done, it is important leaders assess how well they are doing at taking care of people. I’m not proposing a new way to measure taking care of people, rather a renewed emphasis to leaders that this has a direct impact on a unit’s effectiveness.
In Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job,” one factor he identifies in those who are dissatisfied with their work is ‘anonymity.’ He explains that to feel fulfilled with work, people need to be known and identified as unique. They need to feel appreciated by someone in a position of authority. In other words, you have to know your people to show you care about them. Without this, they will often feel overlooked or undervalued as part of the organization or unit.
This is where the art of leadership comes in…to get to know your people, your interest needs to be genuine. This may require showing vulnerability or sharing personal stories that are relatable to help make a connection. And once that connection is made, make it clear you value it. For example, it goes a lot farther to ask ‘How’d Johnny do in that soccer game on Saturday?’ rather than ‘How was your weekend?’ The former shows an attention to what is important to that person, what they are interested in and that you are invested in them and have taken the time to appreciate the things that make them unique.
Maybe you’re having a tough time understanding how this is important to your unit. Let me offer an example; most people have heard their parents say, ‘I’m not upset with you, just disappointed,’ after doing something wrong. The sting of that is greater than any amount of yelling or punishment because they care about you, and letting them down feels like a bigger failure than just making a mistake. This is the same connection leaders should try to cultivate within their units. I don’t suggest that leaders simply make connections with members of their unit to guilt them into accomplishing the mission. Rather, let members know you care about them, and that what they do matters to you and to the mission. Once this happens commitment to accomplishing the mission will increase as the personal connection to it fostered by leaders grows.
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to connect with our people, so we know what is required to take care of them. When people feel cared for, they are more willing to make a personal investment in the organization and its goals. We are an organization of professionals, but all those professionals are people, and people function best when they feel cared about. Leaders will benefit by remembering that taking care of people by creating connections is as important to unit effectiveness as any quantifiable metric and surely one of our largest responsibilities.