In studying Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” I found one piece of advice to be particularly poignant:
“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”
This principle has borne fruit throughout history. Those leaders in war who were regarded as sharing the dangers and sacrifices of the troops were particularly loved and respected by their troops. Some took this behavior to extremes; others simply made a point of showing solidarity with the rank and file.
Before getting carried away with this notion, let us read the next passage and understand both in proper context:
“If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”
Of course, we should bear in mind that the ancient Chinese idea of how to treat children is very much in line with “spare the rod and spoil the child”; however, Sun Tzu was, particularly by the standards of the ancient world, a humanitarian who regarded proper treatment as an advantage rather than a sign of weakness. Even so, Sun Tzu was a practical man mindful of reality; to be kind but soft is fatal to leadership in any organization.
Placed in the context of a modern business organization, these words may seem strange. Yet these words were no less strange in ancient times. The difference between a general and his men seemed as great as that between the earth and the sky; many argue that the difference between a Fortune 500 C.E.O. and a front line factory worker is of a similar breadth. It is also not particularly the point.
A father does not treat his sons well because he is their brother. A father looks after his sons because he has greater power and authority than they do, and thus, a greater responsibility to them, and greater control over himself; he chooses whether or not to make the extra effort. Thus it is with a businessman; there is no power that will force him to look after his employees’ interests. That is precisely why such behavior is respected and admired. Common is the leader who ignores the needs of those that follow him; rare is the leader who takes the time to ask himself, what ails those I am responsible for? What can I do to help them?
Though a manager can be too concerned with the superficial and not enough about the bottom line, similar to a “player’s coach” in basketball who lets millionaire players walk all over him more often than not, the wise leader looks after his charges by looking at the big picture; by taking responsibility for the overall success of the organization. False economy is not a viable long-term option; indulgences that harm the organization and lead to long-term failure are not in the best interests of employees, even if the employees themselves believe otherwise. No one said being a parent was easy.
Above all, trust can only be built by a combination of humanity and consistency. By ensuring that your instructions are followed, all while demonstrating through deed that you are concerned for the welfare of all and not just yourself, you ensure that you are not only liked, but respected. This is not done through verbal tantrums or making your nickname “Chainsaw”; it can only be accomplished by making sound decisions, persistently following up, and building a truthful expectation that you will act in the best interests of those impacted directly by your decisions.
This is a certain path to victory.