Leadership, and the Lack of It

If you have come to help me, you can go home again. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together” (attributed to an anonymous Australian aboriginal woman).

 

We’re living in challenging times. Not many months ago, the world was turned upside down. Even now, things aren’t back to the way they were, and it doesn’t look as though they will be any time soon.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, times like this don’t happen very often. When they do, however, then we need to be prepared, and we do that by going back to basics. You see, it’s all too easy to panic and to react to the circumstances, and to lose sight of the things that are most important. When you go back to basics, you eliminate that possibility. That’s because basics, by definition, are the things on which everything else is built. They’re the foundation.

 

Field Marshal William Slim is probably not a name that you’re familiar with, though the Earl, Louis Mountbatten referred to him as “the finest general World War II produced.” According to several sources, Slim “turned a badly mauled” 14th British Army in Burma into a force that resulted in the chaotic retreat of a superior Japanese army, and all on a perilously thin budget.

In his memoir, now among the volumes on military reading lists, Slim describes the three problems that he had to solve in order to enable his army to achieve its mission - challenges which are remarkably similar to the ones you face today: health, supply, and morale.

And the root problem - the one that was common to all three then, just as it is today - came from a lack of leadership.

Leaders are expected to know what they want, and then to figure out a way to get there without jeopardizing the well-being of the people they need in order to do so. Those who don’t know where to go have no way of figuring out how to get to where they should be because without goals, it’s impossible to make plans. In situations like that, the tendency among those who fail to lead - and no doubt you’ve noticed this - is to sit on the sidelines in the hope that events will overtake them so that they’ll know what they should do next.

 

In other words, they expect to get clarity from serendipity.

It’s worth noting that even military retreats have goals and plans to reach them. When an army is forced to withdraw, as in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, it must be done with as much or more planning, precision and order as it would be if it was moving forward as originally planned.

The wise words of that Aboriginal woman spell out the underlying problem behind the lack of leadership. It’s that too many so-called leaders today don’t see your struggle as part of their survival. Instead, they’re more interested in preserving what they have in spite of your experience.

Your problems are incidental to theirs; not integral to them.

People who hold leadership positions, and who think like that cannot expect to hold onto their authority for long. That’s because of something that Abraham Lincoln may have said:

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

A time will come when enough of the people who have been fooled thus far will catch on. They’ll realize that, as a leader, you’re just bluffing; that you have no more idea of how to lead than anyone else, and that there’s no reason why they should follow you at all.

If you happen to be one of those so-called leaders who’s waiting for events to show you what to do next, then you have much to learn from General Slim.

 

Health and well-being

When Slim took over the 14th British Army, the biggest risk to the health of the troops was malaria. Malaria is a life-threatening illness caused by the transmission of a parasite from infected mosquitos. Even today, it kills more than 400,00 people annually.

At Slim’s insistence, everyone was required to take mepracine, the drug of choice at the time. The medication tasted foul, but the infection rate had reached 70%, and something had to be done. Instead of following the easy path and blaming the medics, as many so-called leaders would do today, he placed the responsibility for non-compliance on his officers. He sacked three in senior positions for failing to insure that those in their command took it. According to Slim, “Good doctors are no use without good discipline. More than half the battle against disease is fought not by the doctors, but by the regimental officers.” The rate of infection soon dropped to five percent.

He also insisted that everyone roll down their sleeves in the evening to protect them from insect bites, and he banned shorts. In his opinion, standards applied to everyone, regardless. It didn’t take long for the other officers to catch on. In his words, “the rest got my meaning.”

Although you may not have to fight against malaria or any other illness in your organization, the overall well-being of your employees is your responsibility and that of your managers.

 

Stress

The illness or disease, however, that has the greatest impact on your workforce today is stress. Research has shown that more than half of all sick days taken in the UK are due to anxiety or depression from the workplace. Demanding more and more from people without giving them the resources they need to achieve it and the means to recover physically, mentally, and emotionally will ultimately destroy their health. In other words, if you don’t take this problem seriously, it will get much worse. Whatever you think you’re saving by denying people what they need to minimize stress will be lost because of it.

In addition to sick days, stress contributes to employee turnover. Those who can leave will. Those who can’t, will stay, the result of which will be a concentration of stressed-out people.

The solution is to invite everyone concerned to work together so that they can come up with ideas to defeat this serious problem; and you may also need to get outside help from experts who know how to deal with it. But don’t just drive everyone into the ground in the hope that something will work out eventually. As Marshall Goldsmith’s book title so cogently puts it: What got you here won’t get your there.

 

It’s worth mentioning that leadership is not about pushing from behind, as generals were fond of doing during WW1, or racing ahead in the belief that others will follow. Instead, it means that you need to come alongside those in your charge and provide personal encouragement, support, and help so that they can do what you’ve asked of them. In other words, you should never expect someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.

Remember the TV series, Back to the Floor? It may be that you can’t do that with anonymity, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get back into the trenches yourself. Doing so will remind you of what your people have to face every day and seeing you do it or attempting to do it will give them more confidence about doing it themselves. That’s partly because they know that it’s their job, and not yours.

 

Supply

Supply is about logistics - managing the flow of people and resources from A to B. Slim wasn’t the only general in the War to face this problem. More famously, Eisenhower experienced it, too, in the months following D-Day. Both generals, and there were others, faced challenges with weather, terrain and distance. Both had to learn how to overcome them.

Slim made sure that his headquarters staff faced the same hardships as his frontline troops. They participated in long marches, became qualified in every weapon available to them, and ate only half-rations when everyone else did. That made the staff, officers, and men all feel that they were part of the same unit and concentrated the minds of the logisticians whose responsibility it was to supply them.

It’s unlikely that you’ll face similar challenges with your suppliers, nevertheless, when everyone in your organization truly believes that “we’re all in this together” and can see evidence of it, then they’ll be more likely to work together to find a solution. But how often have you felt that the idea that “we’re all in this together” is just another platitude which sounds great in speeches, but in which no one has faith? It sends out a message that you don’t care; that everyone else is expected to carry the brunt of the problem; not you.

 

Morale

Morale is one of those organizational intangibles. You know it when you have it, and when you don’t; but you can’t quite put your finger on why that’s the case.

Morale comes from the sense of everyone being in it together. That’s why they have to be. There can’t be the perception that there is one set of rules for managers and another for everyone else. And apart from, because it’s the right thing to do, it’s also why fairness is so important.

Some years ago, on one of the early Apprentice programs, a contestant remarked to Sir Alan Sugar that what he was being told wasn’t fair, to which Sugar said that that the only fare he’d give was bus fare. That attitude doesn’t engender camaraderie or espirit de corps. That doesn’t make anyone feel like they’re part of a greater whole. Instead, it isolates them, and isolation destroys morale, not to mention faith in you as a leader.

One of the biggest reasons why people change jobs is because they don’t like their managers or supervisors. And here’s the thing: They expect to. They don’t expect there to be a problem, and so when there is that’s when they start to look at their options for solving it.

That means that the ball is in your court. If you want to hold onto the people that matter to you the most, then you need to take especially good care of how your treat everyone; not just them. If you won’t be fair with those who can’t defend themselves, then those who can won’t trust you.

 

Morale is also a product of good recruitment. When you hire people solely for their skill, it may mean that you’re bringing in an organisational pariah. Toxic people can destroy morale, especially when there’s a leadership vacuum. And that’s because employees see no way out.

 

And the goal should always be to solve problems; not find someone to blame for them. A wise person once asked if you were part of the problem, or part of the solution. As a leader, you must be only part of the solution. You should never be the problem, or even part of it.

You can only blame others for struggling to get on with you for so long. When it becomes a pattern, then you must consider that the common denominator is you.

 

People will follow you because they want to; because they believe in you, and what you’re trying to achieve. Initially, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but once they get to know you, they’ll do it only because you’ve proved to them that their struggle is part of your survival. You’ll lose them when that ceases to be the case.

 

Want to know more about leadership and the lack of it? Contact me here

 

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