On September 8, 2009 Captain William Swenson and his unit were engaged in a fierce seven hour battle with Taliban rebels in the Ganjgal Valley near the Pakistan boarder. On several occasions during the firefight, Swenson braved intense enemy fire to pull his wounded and dying men from the battlefield to safety.
One of the greatest symbols of his leadership style was captured by a helmet-cam and later posted to YouTube. After loading one of his mortally wounded men onto a medevac helicopter, Swenson is seen leaning over and kissing the soldier on the forehead before returning to the battle. Later in an interview, the Captain said he wanted to convey with that gesture that he was proud of his soldier for fighting so valiantly, that his work for the day was over and it was time to leave the battle. He went on to talk about his responsibility to his soldiers and his love and pride for those under his command. For his leadership and bravery that day, Capt. Swenson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When I saw this I was overcome by the compassion he showed for the people he was responsible for. I began to ask myself, why don’t we see this type of leadership and level of caring in business? In the last decade there’s been much talk about servant leadership. I’ve always found the term to be redundant. I was taught, and as Capt. Swenson demonstrated that day, that real authentic leadership has always been of a servant nature.
It makes me wonder, and you should too, where did we get off track in business? Why is it that the expressions of sincere servant-hood are so absent from many work environments? One answer may lie in the reward systems. In the military awards are given out to individuals who often sacrifice themselves for the good of those they’re responsible for. To the contrary, in business, awards (bonuses, promotions, salaries, etc.) are often given out to those who’ve achieved a lot for themselves, sometimes at the expense of those they’re responsible for. Perhaps we’ve got it upside down. It explains to some extent why books and programs on servant leadership are all the rage. It’s because the standard has become the exception.
Another reason we don’t see enough of truly compassionate, authentic leadership may be rooted in the business culture. Why is it that soldiers will willingly face life and death situations for their leader but you can’t get an employee to complete a report by Monday? It’s not that they love war. It’s that they love their leader and they love their leader because they know their leader loves them first. So how is that communicated? It’s not done with words. It’s done through a commitment of training and preparation ensuring the greatest opportunity for success. It’s done through heat of the battle examples. It’s the officer voluntarily putting himself in harm’s way to protect those he’s charged to look out for. How long has it been since you witnessed that in business? This relationship is no different than raising a family.
The Navy Seals have a code they live by – “Leave no man behind.” Implied in it is the message that there is no more important person than the one next to you and that every member will sacrifice themselves if necessary to protect and stand by their teammates. It’s rooted in a fierce loyalty and love for one another.
A number of years ago I worked at a company where I had a coworker whose wife was gravely ill. Her condition meant he was going to be off work for quite some time to provide care, much longer than he had vacation benefits accrued. Without any mention or request, employees started offering their vacation to their coworker. Why did they do that? Why was it given up as a gift, compassionately and without a hint of obligation? It’s wasn’t something in the water. It was though, something in the culture. I believe those employees were only acting naturally. They did so because they knew how their coworkers and their company cared about them. They were serving just as they had been served.
If you think business has no place for genuine, compassionate leadership, tell that to a tender warrior like Capt. Swenson. Guard your team. Protect them. Defend them. Love them and if necessary, be willing to sacrifice yourself for them. If you don’t watch out for them, there may be no one left to watch out for you. If you’re truly a servant leader then you must be the first to give and the last to receive. When the team sees the sacrificial love of their leader they will give the same back to their leader and to each other.
What we don’t need today is another leadership program with new slogans, exhortations or clever models. What we do need is a leadership renaissance – one which calls us back to the principles of authentic and original leadership rooted in the basic human needs of every individual. One like that lived out by Capt. Swenson for all to see that day in September 2009 in the door of a medevac helicopter.
If you’d like to talk more about how to create a culture of accountable compassionate leadership, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.