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At its core, leadership is about people. Fundamental to this is that leaders take care of their people. But this concept also uncovers one of the biggest clichés in American business; people are our most important asset. Countless organizations, and the leaders in those organizations, say this but the reality of their actions is far different. The message they often send is that the people don’t really matter – it is all about the bottom-line. The leader who sends the message that people don’t really matter will generally not be as successful in the long-run as the leader who is genuinely serious about taking care of his people.
Even today, perhaps more so today, in a society where individuality is lauded and autonomy is cherished, people want to know they will be taken care of. Part of this is instinct, stemming from our nature as tribal beings who need to associate. Part of it stems from the social contract that emerged in our society, and still persists somewhat, that says the firm will take care of us in return for a hard days work and a full career. And part of it stems from the hierarchical nature of our institutions that says those at the top look out for those at the bottom; parents care for children, teachers educate and care for students, and employers take care of employees. Leaders then are viewed as having the responsibility for taking care of those they lead. This responsibility extends to three areas; at work, at home, and for life. We will only look at work in this article.
Beyond the expectation and responsibility that the leader will take care of the led, when a leader takes care of his people he sends a clear message; I care about you, I respect you and I want you to be OK. In response leaders gain increased loyalty from followers based on mutual respect. Ultimately this results in better performance of the group. The thought process for the follower goes like this, “If I know you care about me, I will care about you and what you want done. However, if you don’t care about me then I will not care about you and I certainly will not care about what you are trying to accomplish nor will I work very hard to help you accomplish it.”
So much of what we are talking about here are respect issues. With respect people will go out of their way for you. Without respect they will make sure that your important package always ends up at the bottom of the stack.
Do not lower your standards. No where in here did I say it was acceptable to encourage poor performance. In fact the leader who overlooks poor performance is compromising their integrity. Unfortunately many people view “taking care of people” as “coddling” them. They go on to say, why should I coddle them if they are getting a paycheck. Let’s be clear, we should not coddle them. We should treat people as adults and expect the best from them. We should work to give them the best working environment we can and we should implement timely and proper corrective action when necessary. We want to take care of them so they will want to take care of us. This extends to understanding what they are facing at work and at home.
Taking care of people is one of the fundamental responsibilities of leadership. It requires deliberate and intentional effort and sometimes the efforts of the leader will be rebuffed. That is not a reason to stop doing it. The return on investment of time and money in taking care of people is very high. Some of this return is quantifiable, as in the cost of turnover and higher production. Some of it is not quantifiable as in the case of positive PR.
Taking care of people is about setting a standard and helping them achieve it. This is not coddling nor is it a sign of weakness from the leader. It is quite easy to dismiss people but it far too difficult to replace them. Far better to create an environment where they want to stay and they want to make a positive contribution.