Good leaders are like good parents: You wouldn’t simply start cutting your kids’ allowance the minute their academic performance starts to suffer, so why would you do the same to your workforce, expecting different results? Strong leaders make their employees feel secure, says management theorist Simon Sinek, and draws those in their employ into a circle of trust. But creating trust and safety — particularly in an uneven economy — means taking on big responsibility. Read on to discover companies who didn’t simply begin slashing their workforces the minute the writing was on the wall.
Management theorist, Simon Sinek recently gave a TED talk about what makes a good leader. He recounted the experiences of Captain William Swenson, who was recently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8th, 2009, where he ran into a live-fire attack, to protect and rescue a group of Afghan government officials and village elders who came under an ambush.
One of the people he rescued was a sergeant. He and a comrade were making their way to a Medivac helicopter. One of the medics happened to have a GoPro camera on his helmet and captured the entire scene on camera. The footage depicts Captain Swenson and his comrade bringing this wounded soldier who had received a gunshot to the neck over to the helicopter. The Captain is seen bending over and giving the injured soldier a kiss, before turning around to rescue more people.
“I saw this and I thought to myself: ‘Where do people like that come from?’,” said Sinek. “What is that? That is some deep, deep emotion. There’s a love there. I want to know why I don’t have people I work with who are like that.”
“In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves that others may gain. In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.
“So I ask myself: ‘where do people like this come from?’. My initial conclusion was that they’re just better people. That’s why they’re attracted to the military. These better people are attracted to this concept of service. But that’s completely wrong.
“What I learned is that it’s the environment. If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things. More importantly, others have that capacity too.
“I’ve had the great honor of getting to meet some of these who we would call heroes. Who’ve put themselves and put their lives at risk to save others and I ask them why would you do it. Why did you do it. And they all say the same thing: Because they would have done it for me. It’s this deep sense of trust and cooperation”.
The management theorist explained why trust and cooperation are really important in a business environment, but the problem with those concepts is that they are feelings, not instructions.
“I can’t simply say to you trust me and you will I can simply instruct two people to cooperate and they will,” Sinek said. “That’s not how it works. It’s a feeling. So where does that feeling come from?
“If you go back fifty thousand years to the Paleolithic era to the early days of homosapien what we find is that the world was filled with danger. All of these forces working very very hard to kill us. Nothing personal. Whether it was the weather, a lack of resources, maybe a saber-tooth tiger.
“All of these things were working to reduce our lifespan. And so we evolved into social animals where we lived together and worked together in what I call a ‘circle of safety’.
“Inside the tribe, where we felt like we belong. When we felt safe amongst our own, the natural reaction was trust and cooperation.
“There are inherent benefits to this: It means I can fall asleep at night and trust that someone from within my tribe will watch for danger. If we don’t trust each other, if I don’t trust you, that means you won’t watch for danger. That is a bad system of survival.”
The same problems still exist in the modern day. The world is filled with danger. Things that are trying to frustrate our lives, or reduce our success or opportunity for success. Whether it’s the ups-and-downs of the economy, the uncertainty of the stock market, a new technology that renders your business model obsolete overnight, or your competition that is sometimes trying to kill you, and sometimes trying to put you out of business.
“We have no control over these forces,” says Sinek. “They are a constant and they’re not going away.
“The only variable are the conditions inside the organisation. That’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader that sets the tone.”
Sinek says “remarkable” things occur when business leaders put the safety and belonging of their employees first.
“When we feel safe inside the organisation, we will naturally combine our talents and our strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”
Being a good leader is like being a good parent
Sinek said parenthood is the closest analogy he could give to what being a great leader is like.
“What makes a great parent? We want to give our child opportunities, education, discipline when necessary,” he said. “Also that they can grow up and achieve more than we could for ourselves. Great leaders want exactly the same thing.
“They want to provide their people opportunity, education, discipline when necessary, build their self-confidence, give them the opportunity to try and fail, all so that they can achieve more than we could ever imagine.”
Companies doing it differently
Kim implemented a policy of lifetime employment, meaning employees cannot get fired for performance issues, opting instead for coaching and support.
“Just like we would with one of our children who happens to come home with a C from school,” says Sinek. “It’s the complete opposite. This is the reason so many people have such a visceral hatred for these banking CEOs with their disproportionate salaries and bonus structures.
“It’s not the numbers, it’s that they have violated the very definition of leadership. They violated this deep-seated social contract. We know that they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could protect their own interests or worse they sacrificed their people to protect their own interests.
“This is what so offends us. Not the numbers. Would anybody be offended if we gave $150 billion bonus to Gandhi? How about a $250 million bonus to Mother Teresa? Do you have an issue with that? None at all.”
Sinek says great leaders never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. “They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people,” he says.
Manufacturing company, Barry Wiemer was hit hard by the 2008 recession and it lost 30% of its orders overnight, meaning it could no longer afford its labor pool. It needed to save $10 million.
Like so many companies today, the board got together and discussed layoffs. But its CEO, Bob Chapman refused.
“You see, Bob doesn’t believe in headcounts,” said Sinek. “He believes in heart counts. And it’s much more difficult to simply reduce the heart count.”
Instead the company came up with a furlough program: Every employee from secretary to CEO was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted and they did not have to take it consecutively.
But it was how Chapman announced the program that mattered so much.
“He said it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot,” said Sinek. “And morale went up. They saved $20 million and – most importantly – as expected, when people feel safe and protected by their leadership, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.”
Quite spontaneously, and unexpectedly, employees started trading with each other. Those who can afford it more would trade with those who could afford it less. Some people would take five weeks, so that somebody else only had to take three.
“Leadership is a choice,” said Sinek. “It is not a rank.
“I know many people at the senior most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders – they are authorities – and we do what they say because they have authority over us. But we would not follow them.
“And I know many people at the bottoms of organisations who have no authority, and they are absolutely leaders and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.”
Watch the full video above to find out what makes a good leader.