In this guest article, leadership expert Angie Morgan shares a leadership lesson from her service in the United States Marine Corps. Her article is inspired by a chapter in New York Times bestseller SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success, which she coauthored. Morgan also founded the consulting firm Lead Star and is director of the Center for Creative Leadership Partner Network.
When I made the decision to join the Marine Corps, I was certain the lasting impact would be the sea stories I collected while traveling around the world. It’s clear, 20 years later, that the leadership lessons I acquired had the greatest influence over my career and life. Specifically, what I learned about service-based leadership and how, through its practice, leaders can inspire loyalty and engagement from their team.
Captain Harper was one of the greatest contributors to my leadership education, though when I met him he didn’t want to be called by his rank and last name. He wanted to be referred to as Coca-Cola … because he was the “real thing.” Make no mistake, he was.
I was one of his students at a 6-month infantry training program, where all second lieutenants learned the responsibilities related to platoon leadership. Under Coca-Cola’s tutelage, there were high, exacting standards. If you couldn’t reach them, there was no coddling — there were nights and weekends where he’d highly encourage you to practice. If you made mistakes, there was no sliding. He’d point out your deficiencies to you (and due to the volume of his voice, others would be aware of them, too).
I have to admit, I wasn’t too fond of Coca-Cola — at first. He was tough. As a young student trying to make her way in the Corps, I was intimidated by him, and his never-ending “coaching and guidance.”
Sad news shared
Yet one day when he called me into his office and shared with me the sad news that my grandmother passed away, I saw a side to him that I had never seen before —empathetic, compassionate, and caring. After he conveyed the news, he started to tell me everything he’d done to help get me back to my family, including arranging transportation to the airport, talking to the training officer to excuse my time off, and calling my parents to let them know their daughter was coming home on the first flight out. He even sent flowers to my parents’ house so they’d be there when I arrived — a thoughtful, surprising gesture that made me feel cared for.
My impression of Coca-Cola was significantly altered after this experience; I felt a deep commitment to him, the team I was a part of, and the Corps. I grew to realize quickly that his efforts — the criticism, the praise, and the concern — were to make me better and prepare me for greater responsibilities. They were done with (dare I say) love. It was the very first time that I understood what Semper Fidelis meant — always faithful, the Marine Corps’ motto.
Through his example I learned that to be a leader, you can be tough, aggressive, and hold people to high standards, but if in their moments of need you can’t be there for them, you’ll never cultivate loyalty and engagement.
Engagement is on a lot of managers’ minds right now. In the knowledge economy in which we work, success and failure are often determined by how well everyone contributes to organizational results. Managers frequently wonder if they’re getting the most out of their teams. This Gallup Poll, which highlights that 70% of the workforce is either actively disengaged or not engaged, suggests that employees have more to give than they’re giving.
Many managers I talk with wonder how to tap into this reservoir of potential, which could result in greater productivity and new innovations. My advice? Take a page out of Coca-Cola’s playbook. Demonstrate service-based leadership — selflessly acting on behalf of others to ensure their success.
Service-based leadership can seem too “soft” to be a real business practice, but when you lay out the behaviors associated with service it’s quite obvious that they meet employee needs: Deliver honest feedback, invest in the success of others, listen without distraction, provide resources to help someone address their challenges, and make it so someone doesn’t have to ask for help.
All this “stuff” seems simple, right? It can be hard though, because it requires that you take the time to make your team’s needs your top priority.
I urge managers I work with to prioritize building one-on-one connections with their teams in order to find out what motivates each individual, gain a clear view of their strengths, know what behaviors they need to develop, and have career-oriented conversations with them so they can facilitate their development.
I also challenge managers to take significant time in building out their team’s identity so social cohesion is possible, and the group knows who they are together. These efforts can seem to compete with the never-ending to-do lists related to business goals.
Only a paycheck connection
But service is too important to ignore. When it’s absent from a team environment, the only connection employees have to their company is a paycheck. When recruiters call to offer greener pastures, they are then quick to accept because there’s nothing else tying them to their current employer.
Service-based leadership is simple, inspired, and proven. It’s also a process, not an event. Simple actions, demonstrated consistently over a period of time, yield results. They also cultivate pride. To this day, I still recognize the Marine Corps as my favorite employer — the pay wasn’t awesome, the hours were hideous, and the dress code wasn’t ideal. Yet, I was willing to give this organization — and, ultimately, my country — my all, due to the deep connection I felt between key leaders who served me throughout my time in uniform.