Ronald Reagan kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read, “There is no limit to what a man may do if he does not mind who gets the credit.” What this revealed about Reagan, and a revelation that should be applied by all in leadership, is that he valued the people who were entrusted to incorporate his vision more than himself. They were not merely employees meant to cater to his every whim, but key pieces of a larger puzzle, each with his own unique contribution to make.
Reagan made a commitment to his people—to value their input and make it part of his overall vision. Good leaders share the same basic assumptions about people, their motivations, and their abilities and good leadership begins from the premise that people want to perform their jobs well and then seeks to build upon that premise. People do not need distrustful oversight to be motivated to perform well and such leadership only breeds destructive adversarial leader/follower relationships. How can leaders develop positive relationships with followers, relationships that enhance—rather than hinder—organizational performance?
The first basic assumption is to realize the need people have to feel wanted. No one wants to feel like they are simply a body completing a checklist of duties provided by a task master. More importantly they do not want to feel like they are expendable at any time, only to be replaced by some other “galley slave” at the whim of an unappreciative leader. People want to know that their individual efforts are noticed, valued, and considered an integral part of the organizational mission—whatever that is. People want more than just a paycheck. They want significance in their lives, significance that gives them good reason to get up and go to work every morning. Making people feel their contributions are important and appreciated fulfills that need and makes them feel valued.
The second assumption is that encouraging people in their job performance goes hand in hand with making them feel valued. Very little is gained by providing only negative feedback. An illustration will serve to emphasize what I mean. It was once suggested to a supervisor of mine that a co-worker get a letter of recognition for his performance during a particularly difficult police call. His performance of his duties went above and beyond his job description and lives were saved because of it. The supervisor responded flatly, “I don’t give letters of recognition to people for doing their job, that’s what they are paid to do.” However, this same supervisor was quick to issue letters of admonition for simple mistakes made on the job, even mistakes made in good faith. What did this accomplish? It created an atmosphere where subordinates spent the majority of their energy trying to avoid mistakes, rather than performing well. The “perform well or else” approach produced mediocre work—work that was just good enough to avoid negative attention, yet did not come close to reflecting the employees best ability.
This leadership style may result in “obedience” but it does not establish positive relationships. Seeking only to criticize an employee, but never to praise them, will never earn a leader respect, only resentment. Obedience is not respect. Respect for authority is something a leader must earn by making a personal investment in personnel—to develop them, to lead them, and to respect their contributions. This investment in personnel earns the loyalty of followers, followers who will work hard for the leader toward organizational success.
Thirdly, success is a process that must be taught—and learned. Many leaders project the attitude that they have always been successful, giving the impression to subordinates that their leaders cannot relate to the “little guy” who makes the organization work or know how he is affected by the decisions the leadership makes. If a leader can demonstrate that his success comes from the lessons he learned from failure, and that his organizational decisions are made with this in mind, he will show that he is committed to helping subordinates learn and grow from their mistakes. This will develop a dedicated and motivated workforce that knows the leadership is committed to developing them as people and increasing their value within the organization. They know they can be successful working hard, not just producing mediocrity.
People are naturally motivated; leaders just need to ensure that the motivation given them is positive motivation. Like my aforementioned example, do we want to motivate people with the threat of a reprimand or with rewards and praise for good work? What motivates us? Positive motivation inspires people to contribute to the goals of the organization, not simply to avoid doing poorly. Effective leaders reinforce the one while discouraging the other. We do not want people striving for mediocrity; we want people dissatisfied with mediocrity. This should serve to encourage subordinates to introduce positive changes with the encouragement of their leaders, especially changes that will benefit the organization and increase its productivity and morale.
With knowing how to motivate people, leaders should also know the contrary, what discourages or, put another way, what de-motivates people. People are discouraged by negative motivation. Openly criticizing performance shows a leader who is not interested in building people up, but in tearing them down. The same can be said for manipulating people. Manipulating people erodes trust in leadership and reveals someone who sees their subordinates as pawns on his personal chess board, to be used for his own ends. Leaders should take the time to get to know their people and become sensitive to their needs. Subordinates need personal fulfillment and growth. Leaders must recognize and encourage this growth, because it provides a tangible benefit to any organization.
It is vital that leaders understand that an organization’s most valuable asset is its personnel. If an organization is going to be successful it must stress the development of this asset and commit to the time it will take. If the leadership of an organization is self-serving and interested only in personal accolades, it will not work to develop this asset. Thus, the productivity of the organization will suffer—because no individual leader can do it all. In applying these principles leaders will begin to bridge the great gulf that prevents them from creating allies instead of adversaries. Leaders who do not apply these principles, and tend to manage from the premise that subordinates are lazy and disposable, destroy this potential. By seeing the organization as the “little guy” sees it, the leadership demonstrates that they care for their people as much as they care for themselves. That is a noble and worthy goal to achieve in any organization.