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Great leaders love their teams

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Great leaders love their teamsMost Australians wouldn't recognise the name Eric Shinseki. But if his prophetic voice had been listened to, we might have one less global crisis, and we might be much better leaders. It’s too late to do much about the former, but we have plenty of time for the latter.

General Eric Shinseki was the highest ranking military officer in the United States until he ran afoul of his boss, former Defence Secretary Donald Rumseld, shortly before the invasion of Iraq.

What was General Shinseki’s transgression? He suggested at a Congressional hearing that the US Army would need to dispatch many more soldiers to Iraq than was planned, in order to keep the peace after the removal of Saddam Hussein. He was, in retrospect, completely right. But at the time he was pushed aside for voicing an unpopular point of view.

Now let us reflect on General Shinseki’s leadership wisdom. In his retirement speech, he offered this summary of his leadership philosophy: "You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader."

That statement may seem remarkable, coming as it did from America’s commanding military warrior. Surely "love talk" has little place among the macho, towel-snapping military class? But perhaps the opposite is true? I suspect that a general makes wiser choices when he loves those he must place in harm’s way, and I would suggest that soldiers perform more effectively when confident that they are loved and valued by those tasked with the awful burden of sending them to face their possible death.

General Shinseki’s statement brings to mind another ex-soldier, and avid proponent of "love-driven leadership" — St Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast is celebrated next Tuesday (31 July). An injury sustained in battle crushed this one-time soldier’s leg and military ambitions, prompting consideration of alternate career paths. He ended up founding, in 1540, the Catholic religious order commonly known as the Jesuits; today its nearly 20,000 members serve in more than one hundred countries.

Great leaders love their teamsLike Shinseki, Loyola was not afraid to assert that great leaders ought to love their teams. He told Jesuit bosses to manage with "all the love and modesty and charity possible" so that teams could thrive in environments filled with "greater love than fear". Apparently, love works: the Jesuits are marching inexorably toward their five hundredth anniversary; consider, in contrast, that fewer than 20 per cent of the largest US companies of the year 1900 managed to last even a century.

We rightly bemoan the leadership deficit afflicting our corporate, political, and religious institutions. We grasp at institutional remedies like stiffer accounting rules, oversight commissions and the like. Against such tangible mechanisms, love-driven leadership may seem a mushy, vague notion lacking measurable bottom-line impact. The ex-soldiers, Shinseki and Loyola, might beg to differ.

Loving generals don’t lightly send valued subordinates to die. And no corporate leader who loved employees would recklessly gamble their pensions and livelihoods to prop up the value of his or her stock options, or treat as a personal piggy bank the profits generated by dedicated employees, or blithely wear the chief executive mantle while claiming complete ignorance of massive frauds engineered by key lieutenants. What’s more, executives who love their teams are keen to develop each person’s potential and hold each subordinate accountable to the kind of high standards that make each person and the whole team perform better.

I applaud General Shinseki, a man who served his nation with integrity and who is macho enough to promote the virtue of loving leadership. And bravo to the Jesuits, who gamely pursue lives of loving service. Most of all, bravo to all parents, teachers, managers, and generals who love those under their care. "Love those you lead", as both soldiers and saints have urged us.



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Existing comments

Officers who love their men may not be as rare as is suggested.

Field Marshall Slim wrote: " [A division] is one of the four best commands in the Service-a platoon, a battalion, a division, and an army. A platoon, because it is your first command, because you are young, and because, if you are any good, you know the men in it better than their mothers do and love them as much. ..." (Defeat into Victory, Ch 1.)

Bryce Fraser | 26 July 2007  

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