Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Lesson in Handling People

I don’t even remember what I was angry about at the time.  Nor do I remember the details of what I said to that young Soldier as he stood at parade rest in the cold grey of a German November afternoon.   What I do remember vividly is the look on my new Platoon Sergeant’s face once I dismissed the target of my tongue lashing.  He was clearly not pleased with his Lieutenant’s behavior, but his look was not one of anger.  Rather, his expression was a perplexing mix of concern and irritation.
“SFC Mosely, was I wrong?”

That seasoned NCO paused for a moment and then spoke the words that changed forever how I would deal with problems, people and performance.

“No Sir, you were not wrong . . . But that Soldier has a vested interest in your success, and you have a vested interest in his (success) . . . the sooner you figure that out,  then the better off we are all going to be.”

The first thing that flashed across my mind was “Can he say that to me?”

 Of course he could say that and he was absolutely right.  I had vented my frustrations on someone who also wanted to succeed, but had fallen short in the judgment of his leader.  I had not spent any time seeking to understand how he got there or why.  By the end of my one way monologue, that served only to point out shortfalls and express raw anger, I still faced the same problem and the same person.  Rather than inspiring higher levels of performance, I had managed to alienate one of the people I needed most in order for the organization to be successful.  This was definitely not a recipe for long term success.  SFC Mosely’s observation drove that home hard.

In less than one minute, I realized that as a matter of routine I had been using the power of my position and rank to point out failings when I should have been committed to the growth of each individual in my unit and underwriting their mistakes.  Not clubbing them with them.

Of course there are exceptions, but much more often than not, poor performance is a result of misunderstanding, lack of training, unclear objectives, conflicting priorities or personal issues that erode an individual’s ability to wholly commit to the tasks at hand.  A leader is obligated to communicate, organize, direct, train, motivate and take care of his or her team.  

Habitual berating accomplishes none of these.

I learned a whole lot more about leadership from SFC Mosley in the year we served together, most of which still governs the manner in which I lead my organizations and handle the people I have the privilege of serving.   The most important thing however, was learning the power of changing my perspective.  His simple articulation of the fact that most people have an inherent desire to succeed, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me as a young officer.  From that day forward I internalized the fact that the very essence of leadership is the task of achieving success as a team.  If the leader is to be successful then the organization must also be successful.  A leader who does not acknowledge that critical interdependence  limits the potential of both parties.
I have found that the immense power of committing to others and helping them achieve the success they desire can accomplish more things and trigger more positive change than one can imagine at the start of a leadership journey.
Even more satisfying is that this personal commitment is exceptionally effective at growing other future leaders.  And in the end, this is probably our most important leadership responsibility.

So, are you helping the members of your organization succeed or are you simply assigning tasks and passing judgement?


  1. Great post, Mike. Another lesson learned here, that I also learned from an outstanding PSG is that just because you are the leader you don't have to and shouldn't assume you have all the answers. Listen to experience!

  2. Wow, great insights, Mike. Someone asked me just today what you do, and I said you are a leader of apt description, I think. Mom

  3. You're so right Mike! By committing to help other's succeed, and seeing that as part of your success, you can bring up the whole team. I've found that this attitude can work even if you're in informal leader on a team (although its great when it comes from the top).

  4. What a powerful lesson. Perspective changes everything; empathy guides us to greatness. In building a team, a leader needs to understand what motivates others and act in a way that engages their loyalty and commitment to group success. I agree that when you help others succeed, you succeed in ways beyond the task at hand. Bravo.

  5. Liz and Helen, Thanks for stopping by! Committing to the success of other's is a powerful experience and generally the first step to understanding what makes them tick and building the trust necessary to move ahead as a team. I appreciate your notes!


  6. Thank you for your wonderful insights. SFC Mosely's quote stopped me dead in my tracks. What a great way of looking at leadership. Rather leading or following, it really is all about realizing that both parties have a vested interest. The Job of a leader is to motivate those interests toward common goals. The fact is that leaders need great people just as much as people need great leaders.