Though the forecast for the economy is starting to improve, the plight of recession-weary businesses is still difficult. If you’re struggling to find a way to motivate your employees when offering money isn’t an option, here’s some advice for you: Focus on becoming a great leader. There are few things your employees will appreciate more.
After months of economic tough times, a glimmer of light is starting to appear at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Rather than being harbingers of doom, economic news stories are now starting to look ever so slightly brighter. This improved economic forecast will likely have many company leaders looking for ways to motivate their employees to keep up the hard work necessary for navigating their companies into calmer waters. Unfortunately, despite the recent economic uptick, most company leaders still can’t offer what they view as their greatest motivational bargaining chip with their employees—the almighty dollar.
Fear not. Money isn’t the only way to rally your troops and boost morale during this crucial time. In fact, positive, strong leadership can often garner far greater results than offering money or other perks ever could.
Too often businesses assume that offering more money is the only way to motivate employees. The reality is that employees value having strong leaders who motivate them to do their best just as much, if not more. And there’s no greater defense against a tough economy than a workforce motivated to do their absolute best.
As an alum of the White House fellowship program, one of the most prestigious leadership programs in the country, I know the value of quality leadership. There’s never been a more appropriate time for the rest of us to look to great leaders for inspiration. The lessons that can be learned from the White House Fellows mentors are universal and absolutely invaluable to any business leader smart enough to heed them.
Remember, all the money in the world won’t keep a hardworking but unhappy employee with your company. But follow the leadership principles that help you better motivate and encourage that employee and she will be just as invested in making your company a success as you are.
Using insightful, firsthand accounts from past participants, my book, Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization, explores the leadership lessons that former White House Fellows took away from their year working under some of the best of the best in Washington, D.C. Here are eight lessons from some of the nation’s greatest leaders:
LEADERSHIP LESSON #1
Energize your people.
Your employees have just helped you pull your company through one of the nation’s worst economic periods. They’ve been constantly bombarded with bad news in their own lives and in their work lives. It’s time they had a source of positive energy. Who better to turn to for that kind of encouragement than you, their leader? Instead of being the type of leader who sucks the energy away from others, resolve to be the kind of leader who strives to bring passion and positive energy to the workplace every day.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: John Patrick Gallagher
U.S. Major John Patrick Gallagher (WHF 07-08) learned about leadership from General David Petraeus. General Petraeus was a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division at the same time Gallagher was assigned to the division as a second lieutenant. One day Petraeus called his brigade together and asked them who could tell him the No. 1 leadership priority of the brigade. The answers ranged from integrity to professional and tactical competence to marksmanship until finally someone hit the nail on the head. The answer? Physical fitness.
“We all thought he was kidding,” recalled Gallagher, “but we learned later that he was right. Self-discipline and being able to perform under pressure and exist outside our comfort zone would be the key that unlocked our success.”
Petraeus began leading his troops through 75 minutes of intense exercise every morning. And with every pull-up, push-up, and sprint, the brigade became more alert, had more physical and mental energy, and more individual and team pride.
“All those other things we wanted to do well got better, whether it was marksmanship or vehicle maintenance or soldiers going on leave and not getting arrested for DUI,” Gallagher said. “All these other indicators went up when Petraeus created this climate of self-discipline. He boiled down his leadership approach to this: Am I giving my subordinates energy or am I taking it away? Put another way, am I leading in a way that causes my subordinates to be more enthusiastic and creative about doing their jobs—to believe more deeply in what they are doing and why they are doing it—or am I leading in such a way that it is stifling growth and enthusiasm? If the latter is true, the job may still get done by the sheer force of your legitimacy or presence, but it doesn’t get done as well and it doesn’t last after you’re gone. Petraeus knows how to lead in such a way that it gives his subordinates energy. That’s an incredibly powerful leadership tool.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #2
There’s more to life than work.
Great leaders have deep reserves of physical, spiritual and emotional energy, and that energy is usually fueled by a strong and supportive relationship with the people they love, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and setting aside time for reflection.
Sure, you want your employees to stay focused on moving your company forward, and you might feel like it’s important to keep everyone’s noses (including your own!) to the grindstone. But encouraging your employees to spend time with their families will help them power up for the difficult work to come. And remember to give yourself the same respect!
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Doris Kearns Goodwin
At 6am on a cold January morning in 1973, presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and NBC news analyst Doris Kearns Goodwin (WHF 67-68) received a call from former President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom she had become a trusted confidante while working on his memoirs.
“He told me to get married, have children, and spend time with them,” Goodwin said. “He talked about how he should have spent more time with his family, because that’s a different and more worthy kind of posterity than the public one that he had been seeking throughout his entire political career. That would be our last conversation—but what a wonderful thing to leave me with.”
Goodwin heeded Johnson’s words. She turned down the chance to head the Peace Corps during the Carter administration because she knew it would require her to travel often and be away from her young children. Over the years she’s concluded that those who live the richest lives manage to achieve a healthy balance of work, love and play.
“To commit yourself to just one of those spheres without the others is to leave open an older age filled with sadness, because once the work is gone, you have nothing left—no hobbies, no sports,” Goodwin said. “Your family may love you, but they are not in the center of your life as they might have been had you paid attention to them all the way through. And I always argue that the ability to relax and replenish your energy is absolutely essential.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #3
Put your people first.
No organization is better than the people who run it. The fact is that you are in the people business—the business of hiring, training and managing people to deliver the product or service you provide. If people are the engine of your success, to be a great leader you need to attend to your people with a laserlike focus.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Mitchell Reiss
Mitchell Reiss (WHF 88-89) has seen firsthand that a leader’s focus on his or her people is an incredibly powerful tool. He learned that valuable lesson during his White House fellowship from his principal, the National Security Advisor and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“Two weeks after I started my fellowship, there was a picnic over the weekend for the National Security Council staff and their families,” Reiss recalled. “We got there promptly, but General Powell was already there helping set up, helping cook the burgers and hot dogs, and personally greeting every single person, not just on the staff but their families. He came over to me and knew not only my name but introduced himself to my wife, Elisabeth, and thanked her for allowing me to work the hours that I worked at the NSC. He told her she should feel that she is part of the NSC family as well.
“That very brief but very personal interaction with Powell had an extraordinary impact on her. After he left, she turned to me and said, ‘You better do a good job for that man. If you need to stay late at work, I will never complain.’ That’s the sort of transformative impact that leadership can have, and I was able to see it up close and personal with Colin Powell. This lesson was invaluable when I later worked at the State Department, where I tried to replicate this sense of teamwork and compassion.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #4
Act with integrity.
In a time when news reports are filled with the stories of private and public leaders who’ve acted inappropriately and have gone against the best interests of their employees or constituents, showing your employees that you value integrity can help motivate them and create a sense of pride for your organization.
Remember, the actions of great leaders are consistent with their words. Saying the right thing doesn’t mean much. Doing the right thing means everything when you want people to follow you passionately. By acting with honor and integrity, you build trust with your followers.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Dennis Blair
During his fellowship, Dennis Blair (WHF 75-76)—current director of National Intelligence, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and retired four-star navy admiral—was one of a group of special assistants to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carla Hills. He witnessed how Secretary Hills fought to maintain an honest, above-board environment despite ample opportunities for duplicity.
“The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been rocked by one scandal after another over the years,” Blair explained. “It moves a lot of money around and sends it down to the local level, where things can get pretty raw…There’s just a lot of potential for corruption, but one of the leadership lessons I took away from that assignment was from the tone that Carla Hills set. She was fiercely, unflinchingly determined to do the right thing and never batted an eye about it. Whenever misconduct came to light, she dealt with it quickly and effectively, firing people if necessary and then moving on.”
During Blair’s year in Washington, President Ford was up for re-election. The president and his cabinet were under intense pressure to run a winning campaign. Although everyone’s job was at stake, Blair saw no one abuse his or her power or resort to cheap tactics to influence the election.
“Carla Hills never came in and said, ‘We’re in trouble in Ohio. I want to push some Section 8 money toward Ohio, and I want a big publicity drive so we can turn out a lot of votes there.’” Blair said. “There was none of that. They played by the rules and fought fair and always tried to do the right thing.”
During his own career, Blair had several opportunities to “shade his principles” for his own benefit, but chose not to. On at least one occasion, doing the right thing cost him dearly. Although he couldn’t provide details, he did reveal that because of his leadership role he had a shot at becoming vice chairman or even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To be considered for one of those jobs, he would have had to modify his philosophy and change his leadership style to please a new administration. He chose to stick with the methods and values he had developed throughout his career.
“It wasn’t that difficult a decision,” he said. “Certainly I would have relished the chance to make more of a difference in that higher position, but I was not willing to change my philosophy or my style. I had too much confidence in my approach to change it even though I knew that meant I wasn’t going to move further up in the organization.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #5
Be a great communicator.
If your employees aren’t heeding your advice or company protocols, the problem likely lies with you, not them. Are you using the methods of communication they prefer? Are your messages clear and easy to understand? Leadership is about influencing others, and this cannot be achieved without the ability to communicate. If you’re struggling with communicating to your employees, first work on your ability to influence individuals by choosing words that are impactful to carry your message. Then you need to figure out how to communicate to a larger audience.
Remember to be open and honest with your employees. Communicate to them how the economy is affecting the company and where you would like to take it in the future. And always keep in mind that your actions truly speak louder than your words.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Marsha “Marty” Evans
After learning the value of quality communication from her fellowship principal, U.S. Treasury Secretary William “Bill” Miller, Marsha “Marty” Evans (WHF 79-80) carried on the tradition in her work with the Navy.
In 1986, former Fellow and Naval Academy Superintendent Chuck Larson (WHF 68-69) tapped Evans to be one of six battalion officers at the Naval Academy—the first female battalion officer in Navy history—placing her in charge of the training and well-being of hundreds of midshipmen. The academy was meant to be a place of discipline and decorum, but occasionally a lower classman would slip up by wearing non-regulation clothing. When Evans saw a third classmate in a Budweiser t-shirt one day, she assumed there had been a breakdown in communication.
“I remember the lecture so well,” Evans recalled. “I said, ‘You know, my own basic leadership belief is that people generally want to do the right thing, and if they’re not doing the right thing it’s because they haven’t been trained properly. They haven’t somehow had the benefit of the teaching and the leadership of their seniors. So, I can only come to the conclusion that this youngster is wearing this t-shirt because he has suffered from faulty communication by his midshipman chain of command.’ Each person in the third classman’s chain of command was held accountable and punished.”
Evans’s common-sense approach to encouraging better communication in her organization helped her create a more cohesive team and also garnered the Navy’s attention. She was promoted steadily throughout her 30-year career and retired as a two-star rear admiral, one of only a few women to attain the rank. Since leaving the military, Evans has used her outstanding communication skills in her roles as director of the Girl Scouts of the USA and president and CEO of the American Red Cross.
LEADERSHIP LESSON #6
Be a great listener.
The most effective leaders are the ones who take the time to listen not just to their team members’ words, but to the priceless hidden meaning beneath them. Remember that during good times and bad, sometimes your employees just need someone to talk to. Communicate to them that you are always waiting with open ears.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Cesar Aristeiguieta
Cesar Aristeiguieta (WHF 02-03) was assigned to work with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson during his fellowship. It wasn’t long before the young White House Fellow noticed an important leadership trait in his principal that he hoped to nurture in himself: Secretary Thompson was an outstanding listener.
One example of this came during a meeting with food industry executives who were brought in by Secretary Thompson to discuss their role in the rise in childhood obesity. The executives essentially told Thompson that the government should stay out of their business.
After listening to them for almost an hour, Aristeiguieta recalls that Thompson responded with the following: “‘I’ve heard you. I understand your concerns. Now I need you to tell me how you, as an industry, can help address this public health issue.’ Then he just sat back and listened again. Pretty soon they were talking about how they could step up and participate without being forced into it—how they could begin putting more healthy food choices on their menus and those kinds of things—and by the end of the meeting the tone had changed dramatically. They weren’t attacking the secretary anymore. They were actually pleased, and they felt that they were part of the dialogue, and in fact, they probably went further than the secretary really expected them to go at that point.
“From that meeting I learned the value of listening. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my own leadership style in my work as director of emergency medical services and disaster preparedness for Emergent Medical Associates and also in my role as an assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of California-Davis.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #7
Be a problem solver.
Several years ago, I returned from a business trip to find that my assistant had hung a gigantic 15-foot-long wooden sign above my office door. The sign read, “Don’t Bring Me Problems. Bring Me Solutions.”
I suggest that you post a similar sign and then set about the task of guiding each person on your team toward the goal of becoming a top-notch problem solver during this crucial period. Sure, it takes time and effort to teach problem-solving strategies to your people, but when you experience the payoff, you’ll know it was an investment worth making.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Julia Vadala Taft
In 1975, President Gerald Ford chose former White House Fellow Julia Vadala Taft (WHF 70-71) to direct the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the collapse of Saigon. The resettlement program brought 131,000 refugees to the U.S. in six months. There was no template and no time plan. The work just had to get done, and Taft directed it all with humor, grace and a backbone of steel.
During her career as a public servant, Taft helped reshape the Refugee Act of 1980, and helped organize relief for the people of war-torn and disaster-ridden countries throughout the world, including 25 million flood victims left homeless in Bangladesh, displaced people in Burundi, victims of a poison gas incident in Cameroon, the people of the Sahel and Ethiopia who were suffering from a widespread famine after a locust plague, and 800,000 refugees driven from Kosovo.
When Taft died from colon cancer in 2008, former White House Fellow and longtime friend Colin Powell was quoted in the New York Times obituary section as saying that Julia Taft “was an image of American openness and generosity. Her professional life was committed to people trying to get by on a dollar a day, those who are hungry, without clean water, without medicine, without homes.”
Taft’s obituary in the Washington Post on March 19 stated, “It was her ability to bring order to chaos—plus her willingness to get on a plane, helicopter, jeep or riverboat to go almost anywhere that enabled her to make a difference. Whether in the White House, a refugee camp, or meeting with government and [nongovernmental organization] officials, she knew how to get people moving.”
LEADERSHIP LESSON #8
Lead through experience and competence, not through title or position.
For more than four decades, by pairing young people with established leaders, the White House Fellows program has given hundreds of young Americans the tools, experiences and mentors necessary for them to become confident, well-prepared problem solvers and leaders. And if you want to survive the tough economy, that’s exactly the kind of leadership motif you’ll adopt for your organization. Mentor your employees, encourage them, make partners out of them, and your organization is sure to benefit.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LESSON: Arthur “Gene” Dewey
The ability to help propelled Arthur “Gene” Dewey (WHF 68-69) from his post as assistant to a high-ranking military officer into a White House fellowship at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Dewey’s principal at USAID, Bill Gaud, put him right to work. He sent Dewey to Nigeria, where USAID was spending a great deal of money supporting those caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran war, and Gaud wanted to make sure all of the supplies were getting through.
Dewey found that the Nigerian Air Force was shooting down relief planes during the night airlifts, and so he hatched a plan to get food in by using a combination of sealift and riverboats. He presented the idea to Clyde Ferguson, President Nixon’s special representative for Nigeria-Biafra at the State Department. Ferguson asked him to come work for him for a couple of weeks on what was dubbed the Cross River Scheme.
With no previous experience coordinating large-scale relief efforts, Dewey set about the task of making the project safer and more efficient. As the efforts to bring relief to the people of Biafra—just over three million people fell under the plan—continued, Dewey became more involved in the diplomacy required to set up a formal, enduring procedure for getting food and other supplies to the Biafrans. Unfortunately, the Biafran leader, Governor Ojukwu, refused to accept the plan even though it was clearly designed to benefit his people. Ferguson and Dewey were heartbroken.
Then Dewey had a fateful meeting with an initially very negative Catholic bishop on the island. The bishop complained that the U.S. was not doing enough to help the Biafrans. Dewey informed him that Ojukwu was the one holding up the agreement while his people suffered. He then explained the Cross River plan to the bishop, whose attitude gradually softened. The conversation closed with the bishop promising that when Ojukwu came to confession later that week, he would have a talk with him and get him to change his mind.
Dewey was skeptical. But just a couple of days later, after he had arrived back in New York, he received a call telling him that General Ojukwu would accept the proposal.
Dewey says that the greatest leadership lesson he learned from his White House fellowship was the necessity of being prepared and becoming an expert. His title as a White House Fellow meant virtually nothing as he designed and tried to execute the Cross River plan in Nigeria. What counted were his expertise and his attitude.
Just because the economy has been slow and businesses have experienced setbacks does not mean the fundamentals of leadership have changed. The qualities espoused by mentors in the White House Fellows program translate perfectly to the workplaces of 2009 America. Decide today to start motivating your employees by being the best leader you can be and you’ll all go far, despite the bad economy. iBi
Charles P. Garcia is a former White House Fellow, graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Columbia Law School, and best-selling author. For more information, visit charlespgarcia.com.