Happy New Year! Welcome back to a fresh start and another edition of the Leadership Toolbox. As always, I am your host Capt. Fletch excited to share more fresh leadership tips, tools and stories, and a good movie or sports reference or two.
Last month, I introduced a concept I call “common words.” We all use words like these in everyday interactions, but they take on new meaning when viewed through the lens of leadership. We discussed patience and adversity, and the unique relationship between the two — particularly how the best leaders remain patient when faced with adversity on the path to their objective.
This month, I would like to talk about staying motivated when facing an unclear objective or one you feel is not worthy of your efforts (i.e., a waste of time).
Often when I read historical accounts or even autobiographies, I imagine the stories in their raw state as they happened. I try to read past the easy-to-read, polished version on the page, and attempt to picture the words and actions that would have really transpired in a situation. For instance, my grandfather stormed the beaches of Normandy. History books describe this decisive moment from many different angles: strategy, personal accounts (from those who would talk about it), accounts of the opposition. I imagine myself as an officer preparing my troops to go into such an uncertain (and dangerous) situation. What would I say?
In this instance, I do not think anyone would have felt it a waste of time after the United States had endured the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. I imagine that would have been my approach: to use the obvious motivating factor of revenge for our country. I would not lie or belittle the fact that we faced an uphill battle. Knowing myself, I probably would have even used some colorful language to describe what we were about to encounter. Remember, most of these troops had never seen combat — including the officers. I would consider avenging the nation a great motivator for the moment, but perhaps some men were nervous because of the unknown that awaited them. In the movies, we always see characters like these derided by the other troops. They may even question the loyalty to the cause of these quiet, timid compatriots. The truth is, it is okay to feel this way. The question becomes, how do leaders motivate people not fully confident in the road ahead? This valid question confronts many leaders throughout the world this very moment.
It is equally difficult to motivate people when a task, project or mission feels like a waste of time. Reaching further into history, I look to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the second African-American military unit organized in northern U.S. in response to the Civil War (just a few weeks after the 1st Kansas). I have written about the 54th throughout my life and career because their story inspires me. After completing basic training, the unit was put to mundane tasks such as clearing paths and other manual labor. No one would put these men into combat. Just thinking of what they went through to prepare themselves to fight for a cause they had committed their lives to, only to do work they had done most of their lives, makes me feel deflated. Fortunately for history and our country, these men had a leader who fought to get his men a chance to fight for the cause they signed up to defend. I have stood before the memorial to these men in Boston crafted by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and it still brings a tear to my eye. I find it motivating to see the determination in their faces as they march into the horizon to meet their objective.
How do leaders motivate people in these two very different circumstances? The former is a matter of honesty. People naturally have a desire to know what lies ahead. Think of the schedules we all use to keep drilling and construction projects on track. Obviously, we must execute the project in a logical order, but also it subconsciously gives us comfort to see what lies ahead.
An unsure road ahead demands honesty from leaders. However, with this honesty we can maintain good motivation by pointing out the things we do know for sure. Recognize good work thus far or, if possible, reassure the team of plans to keep work moving amid schedule delays. Whatever the situation, maintain integrity. Do not cover things up out of fear people will be upset or cannot handle the truth. Every situation has some good we can zero in on, so disclose the negative honestly but focus on the positive. This may seem obviously, but leaders try to cover things up all the time, and I can offer plenty of examples in which that tactic backfires.
If your team faces tasks that seem mundane, reiterate their importance in the bigger picture. I made it a point in my career to explain to my troops that they were not merely construction workers. I disclosed to them the purpose of the things they built: airfields for training, warehouses for combat rescue workers, hospitals, schools, every project made a difference. Then, much like Colonel Shaw, advocate for more intriguing assignments for your people! Find out what kind of projects they find motivating and fight for them. This could be traveling to a different location, using a different drilling method or maybe just a project with a bigger scope.
I am not really a resolution kind of guy when it comes to the New Year. But if you are looking for ways to motivate your teams in the coming year, try focusing on honest dialogue and good planning, and reiterating their importance not only in the strategic plans of the company but the world. Adding these historical tools to your box might be the thing that jumpstarts your 2022 on a motivated foot!
Until next time, stay safe and healthy, Fletch over and out.