In 2013, Army Captain William Swenson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Battle of Ganjgal, Afghanistan on September 8, 2009. He had been leading a patrol of American and Afghan soldiers that day when they were ambushed and surrounded on three sides, taking heavy casualties, including 5 Americans killed in action. Among Captain Swenson’s many acts of heroism that day, he repeatedly charged into open fire to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead.
By happenstance, a Medevac helicopter pilot who was wearing a GoPro camera on his helmet caught one of the rescues on video. In that herky-jerky footage, Capt. Swenson and one of his comrades can be seen dragging a wounded sergeant who had been shot in the neck. They lifted him into the helicopter, and then a very strange thing happened. The captain leaned over and kissed the wounded soldier on the side of his head. Swenson had no idea he was being video-recorded that day, so he certainly could not have known that his gesture would be posted to YouTube, go viral, and be witnessed by millions. My question for all would-be leaders is this: how do you think his soldiers felt when they saw that video?
My suspicion is that they were overwhelmed by the fact that their leader had not only repeatedly risked his life to save his troops, but that he had done so not merely out of a sense of duty and honor. That would have been impressive enough in its own right. Instead, he had rescued these men out of a profound sense of love for the people who served under him. This was certainly not “Blood and Guts” General George Patton who sent hundreds of thousands of troops into a meat grinder as he lingered behind in comparative safety declaring “God, how I love it!”
Capt. Swenson’s is the model of leadership that engenders undying loyalty from those being led. I’ll bet that after watching that video soldiers would follow him into battle armed only with toothpicks. In the military, leaders are honored for sacrificing themselves for their troops. In business, too often we reward managers who sacrifice their employees for personal gain. Every time this happens, employees become less engaged and less motivated. Eventually, they become actively disengaged, that is, they spend their time at work trying to sabotage the organization, or at least their boss.
Wise leaders view their relationship with each employee as an emotional checking account. Before a manager dares to make a withdrawal from that account (in the form of a reprimand, a letter in the file, a denied raise, etc.), he or she must make sure that they have previously deposited enough to cover it in the form of praises, raises, accolades, promotions, kind words, and personal interest. It is insufficient to merely tell employees that they do good work, that you’ve noticed it, and that you appreciate it. While that is important, good leaders go a step farther and show personal interest in their employees. A boss who doesn’t understand this principle is like the husband who declared, “I have no idea why my wife left me! I told her all the time what a great housekeeper she is!” Marriage is more than a mutually agreed-upon division of labor within a household. It is a personal relationship of caring and trust. Leadership is, too.
The great challenge of leadership is that deposits are usually made in small amounts, while withdrawals are comparatively much larger. Opportunities like the Battle of Ganjgal are rare. Captain Swenson’s deposits that day were immeasurable. In civilian life, though, deposits in your employee accounts are almost always made in pennies, nickels and dimes. Because of human nature, however, withdrawals are typically taken in dollars. If you were to pass a colleague in the hallway who says, “You certainly look nice today,” and then another who says, “What happened to you? You look awful!” which comment would have the greater impact? You would naturally run to the nearest mirror and analyze your clothes, your face, and your waistline.
Reproofs are usually experienced as so scathing and damaging that it takes several positive encounters to offset them. Good managers make sure that they seize every opportunity to make any possible deposit, for they never know when a situation might arise that requires a withdrawal. They “save up for a rainy day” in each employee’s account, knowing that any day now a given worker might have to be chewed out. Deposits are made every time you ask an employee how you can help them do their jobs better, every time you ask if they mother is out of the hospital yet, every time you remember their children’s names, every time you express your appreciation for their work or attitude.
I made this point recently to a group of managers and afterwards one of them commented that a recent experience of hers reinforced it. She remarked that employees at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas were cheerful, remembered guests’ names, greeted them cheerfully and were passionate workers. When asked why, one employee answered, “Because managers here constantly come up to me and ask me how I’m doing and if there’s anything they can do to help me.” He then volunteered, “I also work at Caesar’s Palace on weekends. While I’m there, I just go through the motions to get my paycheck and get out.” When asked to elaborate, he replied, “Because over there managers only talk to you when they need something.”
If you want to keep an employee, be sure you’ve got enough goodwill in the bank to cover whatever negative situation might arise. If you overdraw an account, you will lose that employee. They will either quit or, even worse, they will remain as they secretly try to undermine you and your company. Of course, if you have employees you would like to be rid of, bounce all the checks you think you can defend! But you’d better hope and pray they leave, or you’ll create a formidable fifth column that may eventually be your undoing.