Turmoil, stress and uncertainty would all describe the working experience of many of us over the past three or four years and even today as we are beginning to look forward to an improving economy, many millions of Americans remain out of work. Many millions more remain marginally employed and stuck in a world that does not give them the luxury of choice. A job, any job, remains a blessing and upward mobility remains a distant memory to many among us. Confidence remains tenuous in the American work place. As leaders, not only are we tasked with hitting our benchmarks and goals, we are also responsible for looking out for the welfare of our people. The current economy gives us the chance to do both.
There is no doubt that the fight and drive of the American worker took a hit several years back, when we went from, what on the surface, looked like a strong healthy economy, to one where nothing was for certain and one where we did not immediately know where the bottom was. It took agonizing months to understand just how low it could go and suddenly jobs were at a premium, companies were disappearing and millions of Americans whom had never seen or experienced a true economic down turn, were out on the street and unemployed, unemployed and with no immediate prospects of finding another job. Talk about frightening!
I would have to admit to loving the spirit of the American worker. Irascible to the core but damn they can surprise you with their ingenuity and willingness to put their head down and get the job done. The chances are very good that they will whine about something after the crisis has passed but there is not a more productive worker in the world. Part of what makes them such an incredible and productive asset is that ingenuity and the great initiative they show in getting the job done. Needless to say, the trauma suffered by the US economy in 2008 and well into 2009, was way more than enough to dampen that spirit and way more than enough to take away that incredible initiative.
Though I am very cautious in saying this, and though the signs and measures remain very mixed, it would seem that the American economy is in recovery. There remain any number of challenges and obstacles to our getting back to something resembling the powerful economic engine we had known and pretty much took for granted but consumer spending and confidence are steadily improving, the unemployment rates are inching downward and the real estate market has regained a pulse, though it remains in very grave condition. This is a critical moment in time and one in which strong and effective leadership can and should play a big role.
Certainly it would be hoped that leadership has sustained us through all that has gone on but now it has gone from being a fight just to survive, for both the business and our staffs, to one where we need to stand up and move forward, to compete, to attack, to overcome and to win. A great many of our staff members are scared and very reluctant to move and we as leaders need to show them the way. Leaders have to lead, that is what we do and why we are here. In taking these initial steps, we have every opportunity in the world of getting shot down or shouted down but our determination to stand up and move forward will give our people great reasons and the inspiration to do the same. I can promise you that there will be many wanting and hoping we will fail, not many willing or able to face their fears and do much more than keep their heads down. Our willingness allows them to have hope, to believe that something can get better and it will inspire others to follow suit. More than anything else, leaders are purveyors of hope and hope can lead to action and action well directed (leadership) can lead to success.
Of course there is that chance that our timing will be off or that our actions and message will be misunderstood and we end up standing out there by ourselves looking the fool but that is why we do this right? I can promise that the alternative and our failing to stand and make the attempt to move our people will not move us any further toward success.
In the aftermath of this long and very deep recession there are not many among us who are looking forward to doing anything other than keeping their heads down and remaining a part of the anonymous masses. There are not many among us who are that confident in our status and willing to stick out their necks. The immediate and most obvious impact of this fear driven environment is a complete lack of initiative. People who are scared do not take chances and do not stick their necks out. Our job as leaders is to give our people the confidence to step forward to have the willingness to take chances, to make mistakes and to have the courage to succeed. Leadership and only leadership can inspire that change.
Why does any of this matter? Isn’t blind compliance a good thing in the work place? What does it matter if our staff members have initiative or not, as long as they do their job? As leaders we are not so much the ones doing and touching everything, as we are the ones assigning who does what, to what standard, as well as assuring that tasks are getting completed and assuring that those standards are being met. There is no doubt that our lives are simplified if our people are doing what they are told and shutting up in the process but without an attachment and sense of ownership to the tasks our staff members would take on, there is no sense of accomplishment, no sense of ownership and no sense of pride. Beyond that there is no interest in finding better or more effective methods and little or no desire to improve. It is nice to think of ourselves in our various leadership roles as being all knowing and omnipotent but that is just not reality and beyond benefitting from the collective knowledge of those we lead, a huge side benefit to listening and giving voice to their suggestions or concerns is letting them know they are valued and that their opinions matter. Even if we ultimately choose a different path, that we listened and considered their suggestions is extraordinarily important and encourages that initiative and extra effort we need as leaders. Beyond simply accomplishing tasks, there has to be something in it all for our people and a big part of leadership is providing that insight, that vision of something better. If they can see it, they are much more likely to accomplish it.
For his actions on 16 February 1967 in the Republic of Viet Nam, Platoon Sergeant Elmelindo R. Smith of Honolulu Hawaii was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was 32 years old. The chances are very good you never heard of him. I wonder why that is?
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty: During a reconnaissance patrol, his platoon was suddenly engaged by intense machinegun fire hemming in the platoon on 3 sides. A defensive perimeter was hastily established, but the enemy added mortar and rocket fire to the deadly fusillade and assaulted the position from several directions. With complete disregard for his safety, P/Sgt. Smith moved through the deadly fire along the defensive line, positioning soldiers, distributing ammunition and encouraging his men to repel the enemy attack. Struck to the ground by enemy fire which caused a severe shoulder wound, he regained his feet, killed the enemy soldier and continued to move about the perimeter. He was again wounded in the shoulder and stomach but continued moving on his knees to assist in the defense. Noting the enemy massing at a weakened point on the perimeter, he crawled into the open and poured deadly fire into the enemy ranks. As he crawled on, he was struck by a rocket. Moments later, he regained consciousness, and drawing on his fast dwindling strength, continued to crawl from man to man. When he could move no farther, he chose to remain in the open where he could alert the perimeter to the approaching enemy. P/Sgt. Smith perished, never relenting in his determined effort against the enemy. The valorous acts and heroic leadership of this outstanding soldier inspired those remaining members of his platoon to beat back the enemy assaults. P/Sgt. Smith's gallant actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and they reflect great credit upon him and the Armed Forces of his country.”
Leadership, no matter how much we would try to make it into an academic exercise, is our looking our people in the eye and asking them for something better and our being willing to, not only stand with them, but to stand out in front of them, in the effort. If we are not willing to take risks and sacrifice toward accomplishing an end, why should they?
Leadership is about inspiring others in accomplishing our goals, even if we are wounded and have to crawl or perish in the attempt.
Who have you inspired today?
About the author:
Brian Canning is a regular contributor to weLEAD and a business analyst working in the federal sector. For the past thirty years he has worked in the automotive repair industry, most recently as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Training Institute in Savage, Maryland. After serving as a tank commander with the 1st Armored Division in Europe, he started his career as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington D.C., moving on to oversee several stores and later a sales region. He also has been a retail sales manager for a large auto parts distributor, run a large fleet operation and headed a large multi-state sales territory for an independent manufacturer of auto parts. His passions are history, leadership and writing.
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