The dead litter the streets of Port-au-Prince. The aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed this island nation is almost too much to comprehend. Across the globe, roadside bombs wreak havoc in Afghanistan, a smaller scale of destruction than in Haiti, but no less horrific to the deployed soldiers and Marines and their loved ones. Open a newspaper these days. Turn on the television. We cannot avoid the carnage and suffering affecting tens of thousands this week. Nor should we ignore the heroic teams working to save the lives of so many.
Now look around your office or company. For many organizations, there is a growing gloom brought about by the economy of the past eighteen months, significant layoffs and hiring freezes, plummeting profit and growth figures, increasingly disengaged workforces and the associated slippage in productivity. And many leaders are panicking, clamping down on anything they perceive they can control. Empowerment gives way to authoritarian micro-management. Risk-taking slips as finger-pointing rises. Work-life balance sloughs away to workaholism. Not to mention the fact that much of the country remains gripped in a dark, icy winter freeze, leading to increased cabin fever and workplace tension. To top it off, the Packers lost to the Cardinals this past weekend….another tortuous end to their season.
Pretty glum picture, huh? Well, take a deep breath and relax. As a former infantry officer once told me, pose to yourself the question, “Does anybody die if we are wrong or if this tasks isn’t completed today?” It’s a perspective all leaders should adopt.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that all deadlines should be unequivocally ignored or pushed back simply because completion might mean extra work. Not at all! But when overlapping priorities stress our employees and make difficult the submission of project updates, recommendations or reports, it would do us well to take momentary stock of the true severity of the situation before launching into tirades or pointless admonitions of employees. Ask yourself the question. “Is anyone going to die as a result of this?”
If the answer is “yes,” then by all means insist on immediate completion of the task. But if the answer is “no,” and I’d be willing to bet that in most cases, unless you’re leading a search team through the Haitian rubble that used to be the U.N. headquarters or spearheading a patrol into the rocky valleys of Tora Bora, the answer will be “no,” take a few moments to reflect on the implications of waiting or delaying a deadline. And if the implications are simply having to push back on your own seniors, asking them the same question, have the courage to do so.
A truly effective leader cares more for his people than the specifics of any given task. Tasks will come and go, but the effectiveness of a team is producing consistently high-quality work is fragile and potentially fleeting. Pay attention to the engagement levels of your employees. Make daily notes as to the morale and energy levels of your people. Push when you need to, but also know (and be willing to act on) the times when everyone needs a break.
As a twenty-one year-old team leader of an infantry squad, I learned an important leadership lesson. If you recognize and respond to your team needs when lives are not on the line, your team will respond to you when lives are at stake.
Remember, it’s all a matter of perspective.