Awhile back, I watched another episode of Undercover Boss. As they often do, the boss revealed himself at the end of the show, handed out thousands to deserving employees who are struggling, promoted one or two who clearly deserved it, hugged his workers and explained why his company was good and pledged himself to make it better.
I hear everyday about employers who do not treat workers with respect. I hear about employers who implement company policies with untrained, uninspired managers. Recently, I attended a legal training at which the well-versed Mike Maslanka spoke. Mike represents employers and has done so for 30 years. He reads much about teamwork, leadership and managing for success. I always enjoy listening to Mike. He talked about how as lawyers, we need to be reminded of our values from time-to-time. If we did so, we could work together better and our country would be a better place.
The military is far from perfect. But, speakers like Maslanka always remind me how lucky I was to serve in the Army. The Army, like all the services, requires periodic training. When I was first commissioned as a lieutenant, I attended the Infantry Officers Basic Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia. We learned the Army values, duty, loyalty, selfless service, and more. We then practiced them and debated them in a class known as “Leadership.” In Leadership class, our instructor let us know our opinion had value. He listened to every opinion, no matter how ignorant. We learned a value not stated, that every person’s opinion had value.
A few years later, I was back at Ft. Benning for the Infantry Officers Advance Course. As captains, all of us now had substantial experience with troops. All of us had now experienced the ups and downs of trying to lead disparate groups of men and women in missions they may not respect. How motivated is any soldier to stay until midnight getting ready for a 0530 inspection the next day? So, as captains, we spent a lot of time practicing counseling. We would role play soldiers in trouble and how to help them through major crises. We role played how to deal with selfish commanders and obstinate NCO’s. A few years later as a Major, I attended the more intellectual course, Command and General Staff Officer’s Course. I shook hands again with Army values, learned about Army history, and how to work as part of a staff.
At each step of our career, we are, in effect re-trained, re-armed and re-fueled for the wider Army world. The system is not perfect, but it does produce “workers” who share expectations and who willingly surrender their individuality for a larger purpose.
One Undercover Boss tonight was from Rally Checkers. At the end of the show, he re-pledged himself to teach his workers his company values. Company values lead to greater retention, less re-training, better cooperation between workers and quicker turn-around time for the basic burger.
One thing I learned in the Army, when a leader compromises on one policy or one value, that inevitably leads to compromise on others. I told my son the other day that we tell the truth on the small things because that is practice for telling the truth on the big things. Soldiers and workers see it when we compromise once or twice. They remember.
When I first got to Iraq, we were replacing a unit that was seriously dysfunctional. The member of that unit violated some very basic principles of leadership and teamwork. We had to spend ten days with them, learning their jobs before they rotated back home. We got to know them too well.
One basic rule in the Army is that a leader never eats before his soldiers do. The leader eats last. In the Army, when you are in the field, food choices are limited. There is no McDonald’s on the corner. Food takes on added importance. The commander eats the same meals his soldiers eat. The President might get two scoops of ice cream. But, leaders do not eat what his soldiers cannot eat. The leader does as his soldiers do. In that unit we replaced in Iraq, I am sure the commander ate whenever and whatever he pleased. Do not be the leader who eats before his people do. Do not be the leader who revels in the perks. The employees see that. They remember.