Inspirational Leadership: Always Put the Team First
In the Army, talent acquisition works very differently than it does in the private sector. A highly centralized human resources entity moves personnel around to new assignments every 2-3 years, like pieces on a chess board. Leaders do not select their team members – they lead the soldiers they are given. This puts the focus on growth and development. Specifically, Army leadership is centered around the concept of servant leadership, or the idea that it is a privilege to lead others and it is a leader’s responsibility to act in service of the people under her charge. By investing in each team member, individuals are motivated to do their best, which enables the team to work well together collectively. This results in a high achieving team, thus making the leader successful. Simply put – successful leaders care, first and foremost, about the success of each team member.
Servant leadership is not simply a set of tactics; it is a mindset. This philosophy sets the course for not just what a leader does, but how she does it. Through my military training, I have learned that the ability to inspire is what sets leaders apart from managers. To reach the higher goal of inspiring a team, servant leadership is essential. As a leader, the key question to continually ask is, “What else could I be doing to set my team up for success?”
Communication is the foundation of servant leadership
Effective top-down communication sets a tone that everyone, from senior leaders down to individual contributors, are important and deserve to be informed. This also gives team members the transparency and business context that they need to do their jobs well. As a platoon leader, this responsibility was at the forefront of my mind. The soldiers in my platoon inspired me every day with their selfless service, competence, and grace under pressure. It was my job to set them up for success. I focused on clear and transparent communication during pre-patrol briefs. I was sure to explain not just what we were about to do, but why, and what everyone needed to know about the enemy threat situation. In growth-stage companies this translates as a need for leaders to very clearly communicate the vision, strategy, and key aspects of the competitive landscape that may threaten success. This is not a “one and done” annual town hall meeting. From the CEO down to the frontline, leaders must integrate meaningful top-down communication into all projects and initiatives.
Effective top-down communication is important, but not enough - don’t forget to listen. Bottoms-up communication is how you hear what the team needs. This could be training, equipment, or access to external resources. Later in my career, deployed to Baghdad once again, I managed the effort to collect and synthesize intelligence gathered from informants and detainees. I uncovered an issue when talking with our source handlers. They did not have a secure way to prepare and send reports from the field, which prevented timely intelligence-sharing. With a focus on resourcing, I identified a product in the market that would address this issue and secured funding to equip our source handlers with secure, mobile connectivity. My teams were the only source handlers in Baghdad outfitted with this cutting-edge technology.
For leaders of growth-stage companies, the key to resourcing employees for success lies in understanding their needs. Take the time to talk to team members and understand the points of friction that are disrupting their operational workflow. Identify what resources you can bring to bear to remove obstacles for the team and enable success.
Connect with the team and help them embrace fear
Servant leaders find ways to forge meaningful connections with members of their team. These bonds are the building blocks of organizational culture and create camaraderie, an invisible force that pushes the team to go the extra mile, especially under arduous conditions. Even during combat operations, military leaders make this a priority. While deployed to Baghdad, my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Baumann, hosted group meetings with his platoon leaders to hear our perspective and better understand our needs. He also organized periodic social gatherings for leaders across the battalion to connect with one another. My direct commander, Major Kevin Kugel, modeled this by connecting with and developing each of his platoon leaders during one-on-one meetings. However, he didn’t stop there. He also took opportunities to connect with the most junior soldiers under his charge. I recall him periodically taking time to joke around and play video games with soldiers during down time – this may seem inconsequential, but these small moments of connection pay off in a big way when the team must confront a tough mission together.
This also applies to leaders of growth-stage companies who must inspire their teams to persevere through change and confront challenges, such as post-merger integrations or major product innovations. It’s important to consistently invest in building connections with the team. This will create bonds to buoy the team through difficult times. When it’s time for the team to confront a tough obstacle, help them embrace it. Understand that individuals are struggling with their own fears of not measuring up or experiencing a lack of control. Help them turn their fears into action by clearly communicating what is happening and articulating the role that each person plays in the organization’s success. Acknowledge that the next few weeks or months will be hard, but the team is in it together and the extra effort will pay off. After achieving a big milestone, create an opportunity for the team to celebrate their success together.
In growth-stage companies, leaders are tasked with pulling together diverse teams of individuals with varying skills, abilities, and mindsets. Servant leadership provides a model for setting individuals up for success and inspiring them to confront challenges together. The result is an organization ready to bring the CEO’s vision for growth to life.
In the next article, I’ll share specific organizational and decision-making models that enable rapid problem-solving in combat, as well as in growth-stage companies.