In my years in the military I’ve had friends who were members of elite fighting forces, like Navy Seals and Para-Rescue Jumpers. They were members of small elite groups that very few people could qualify to be a part of. They had specialized skills and an incredible level of commitment to their specialties. Very few of us could keep up with them if we had to. The demands of their job required that only the most capable could be part of their group. I’ve known really great people who tried to join them but just did not make the cut.
I’ve also known commanders of very large Air Force and Army units. Their organizations were made up of people at various levels of proficiency. They commanded organizations that were designed for almost everyone, not just for the elite. So their leadership style had to be quite different. They had to figure out the proper pace to move the organization so that everyone could keep up. The motto was often, “No man (or woman) left behind.” In my opinion, this is the greater of the two leadership challenges, and requires a more people-savvy leader.
While some organizations require leadership of extremely talented specialists, most of our organizations require us to lead a variety of everyday people and grow their skills on the job. And most leaders must learn to bring everyone along with them (with the exception of an occasional person who just needs to be let go). They learn the art of moving at a pace where teams can stay together and everyone can keep up.
Here are some advantages of an inclusive style of leadership.
First, great leaders consider how they can leverage their leadership to develop more leaders. Inclusive leaders help others reach their full potential and maximize their contribution to the organization. Besides just being a good way to treat people, it has very practical benefits.
Inclusive leadership builds engagement and loyalty to the leader and to the organization. And employee engagement and loyalty are proven to result in increased productivity and profitability. Our people want to be developed and grow in their capacity. That won’t happen if they’re left behind in our dust.
Inclusive leadership helps retain our best employees and grow our organizations’ leadership bench, giving us more options for promotions and succession planning. It also reduces the high cost of unnecessary employee turnover.
Inclusive leaders also make a greater contribution to society by producing more leaders and a more capable workforce. A stronger workforce is great for our economy, and producing better leaders is good for marriages, families, communities and our country.
Let’s improve our own capacities as leaders to set a challenging but reasonable pace for our organizations, learn to train and coach our people and increase their capacity, motivate people to excel at what they bring to the table, and celebrate and reward accomplishment of clear, reasonable goals.
It’s been fascinating, particularly lately, watching how Americans react to legislation and policies enacted on behalf of groups who want to protect their right to not be bothered, insulted, ridiculed or otherwise treated poorly.
We want the right to deny service to someone if we don’t agree with their life choices. We want the right to demand services from people even if it makes them uncomfortable. We want the right to keep someone out of a public restroom if we don’t trust them. We demand the right to share public restrooms with people even if it makes them uncomfortable. We want to deny people the right to say or write bad things about us. And we want the right to say or write anything we want about those we don’t like.
It seems to me, at the end of the day, we’re fighting for the right to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect, but only if it’s not mandated that we must do the same for others.
Just today I read an article that was going viral on social media. A gentleman was making a case that certain legislation was necessary because he and people like himself were being ridiculed for their life choices. He was absolutely right that the way he and others had been treated was horrible. What he was really wanting was kindness, and he deserves it, as we all do. The problem is no government or business can mandate kindness, short of rescinding most of our human rights.
To make the idea of a kindness mandate more absurd, many people are responding to one group or another’s unkind words and actions with hate mail and death threats. Just read the comments section at the end of most online news articles today. And even more absurd still, who are we demanding mandates for kind behavior from? Politicians! Not exactly known as beacons of dignity and respect (though I know many who are).
Friends, character cannot be mandated, but it can be taught. But it is taught by modeling it for others. In fact, the only way cultures of dignity, kindness and respect are going to be cultivated around us is if leaders model it for others.
If we expect to be treated with dignity, kindness and respect in our culture, here are some things we must NOT do:
We must not refuse to serve people just because we disagree with them. Why? Because that’s unkind.
We must not demand that people serve us if it makes them uncomfortable. Why? Because that’s unkind too.
We must not write slanderous or condescending things about people on the Internet. Why? Because that’s unkind.
We must not demand that people give in to our every whim for convenience, in the name of defending our rights. Why? Because that would be unkind.
We must not boycott or picket places that don’t share our values. Why? Because it’s unkind.
We must not respond to cruelty with cruelty, insult with insult. Guess why.
If you’re doing those things, thankfully you still have every right to. But the truth is, you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, regardless of your religion, race, or orientation.
I’m not saying we should not stand up for our rights. I am saying we don’t need to hurt others or sacrifice character to do it. Remember, leaders create culture. So if we want to create a culture of dignity, kindness and respect, we’re first going to have to learn to turn the other cheek, repaying rudeness with kindness. There are always going to be cruel people on the Internet, in public restrooms, and in picket lines. Just don’t be one of them. Let’s be leaders who are kinder than that. Let’s stop demanding character from people who don’t have it to give. Just demonstrate character every day, and eventually we’ll find it drawn to us.
“No excuse, sir!”
For my entire first year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, those were the three words that came out of my mouth probably more than any other. For a Fourth Class Cadet (freshman), it was the expected answer to any question that began with a “Why.” Even if we knew the answer, the lesson was to never make excuses, never point the finger somewhere else, and to always take personal responsibility.
“Pullins, why is your shirt wrinkled?”
“No excuse, sir!”
“Pullins, why was your classmate late?”
“No excuse, sir!”
“Pullins, why is the sky blue?”
“No excuse, sir!”
It seemed ridiculous sometimes, when there was a perfectly good reason for something, to respond with, “No excuse, sir!” Sometimes it definitely wasn’t fair to have to respond that way, like when something wasn’t my fault. But the point was, it didn’t matter whose fault it was, I was going to take responsibility for fixing it.
It’s natural, isn’t it, to want to fix blame somewhere else when there’s a problem? Especially when we honestly believe that the blame for a problem lies with someone else, that someone else should be held accountable, not us, right?
Our competitive business culture seems to breed the idea that the way to get ahead of the competition, even our peers, is take credit for the good and shift blame for the bad. I used to be fascinated by the first few years of Donald Trump’s “reality” TV show, The Apprentice (when it still featured competition between “real” young business professionals, rather than washed-up celebrities). It was interesting to watch these young go-getters throw each other under the bus in the boardroom, so that someone else would hear the words, “You’re fired,” rather than themselves.
Fast forward to the political debates we’re watching this year, and it feels the same. No one seems to want to claim responsibility for the problems we’re facing as a country. Candidates shift blame to someone else. It’s no wonder leaders who take responsibility and galvanize people to move forward and solve problems together seem hard to find.
Here are some key reasons why it’s crucial that leaders step up and take responsibility, rather than shift the blame, regardless of who is actually at fault.
First, the longer we dwell on who was at fault (no matter how true it is), the longer others will spend defending themselves from accusation and following our lead of finger pointing. I heard a marriage counselor say once, “Husbands, always be the first to say you’re sorry.” I wish I could say that I’ve always practiced that in my own marriage, but I can say that I regret every time I didn’t. My pride got in the way, and instead I drug the person I promised to always love and cherish into a needless battle of wills.
Second, the more time is spent finger pointing, the longer the delay in taking positive action to solve problems and the longer team productivity is lost. Dwelling on the past delays all progress toward a brighter future.
Third, blaming others erodes trust quickly. And trust takes a lot more effort and time to restore than it does to erode. Not only does blame shifting erode trust from our peers and our employees, it also erodes trust from above. How funny it is to think that what our boss really wants to hear is our shifting the blame so that they won’t be upset with us. Do we honestly believe they’d rather hear that than hear us accept responsibility, apologize and start moving ahead and fixing problems? Do we honestly think we make ourselves look god by making others look bad?
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold our people accountable when they are truly responsible for mistakes or poor performance. But it’s very difficult to get them to willingly own their mistakes when we, their leaders, haven’t modeled that ourselves.
Remember, leaders create culture. Not with lofty vision statements, but by their everyday actions. The opposite of a culture of finger pointing is a culture of accountability. And a leader who won’t take responsibility for outcomes, bad ones as well as good ones, cannot create a culture of accountability. That culture can only for because of the leader, not despite them. If we model for others the courage to take full responsibility, we can create a culture where it’s normative for everyone to have the courage do so.
Bring your team on the Leadership Learning Adventure of a Lifetime this summer with Alaska Leadership Adventures!
Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.