Leadership as if people mattered

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I joined the Marines right out of high school and started in business before I earned my degree. I had a family to support, so going the traditional student route made little sense. I earned my degree while I also worked full-time at responsible jobs. It turned out to be a good thing.

I could take classroom learning and try it on the job right away. It didn’t take long to figure out that an awful lot of the so-called expert advice was nonsense. The people in my economics textbooks, for example, didn’t act like me or any people I knew. Years later, Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler would call them “econs.”

Most of my books and most of my professors treated management as an engineering problem. There was much language about designing an effective system and “well-oiled machines.” There was plenty of advice that involved knowing what buttons to push or what levers to pull.

I learned a lot of good things, but most of the good stuff had nothing to do with working with people. I learned most of that on my own, mostly the hard way. You can have the biggest brain on Planet Earth but working with people requires your heart.

Working with people differs from working with machines. You don’t have to read a book or this blog post to figure this out. Look around you. Think about the people you work with every day.

What are People Like?

We know a lot about people. For starters, we know that we’re all imperfect. We make mistakes. That includes you. Forgive other people when they make a mistake. Admit it when you do.

People have strengths and weaknesses. You want to get the most you can out of those strengths and make those weaknesses irrelevant. People want to make progress. You should help them improve performance and spot opportunities they can seize.

People are emotional. Your computer doesn’t care if you snap at it, but your teammates do. A turret lathe won’t have a fight at home before coming to work. But pretty much everyone I know has had that experience. That’s how it is. Deal with it.

Machines can run all day, every day, for months. Buildings can last for decades with little maintenance. People are different. There’s a limit to how many hours most people can put in before productivity dwindles to almost nothing. For most of us, the top limit is somewhere between 50-55 hours a week. Overwork your people and their productivity will drop like a stone.

People need recovery time, too. After a long day, or after that big push to get a project done, people need to take time off. They need to hang out with their friends, play with their kids, go to a baseball game, or cook and consume a fine meal. Anything that’s not work-related. You interrupt that recovery time at your peril. Do it too often and people get resentful.

People thrive on good relationships. People want to work with other people they enjoy and that they can count on. Many a team has seen productivity decline because two team members couldn’t or wouldn’t get along. It’s your job to manage the work environment.

You’re A People, Too

You’re a person, too. You make mistakes. You have emotions. You have strengths and weaknesses. You want to make progress. Relationships matter a lot. You need breaks and recovery time.

One more thing. You set the example, whether or not you want to. It’s almost impossible to have a team that’s productive and happy if you’re a grumpy slacker. See to yourself first. Revel in your humanity. Draw strength from your relationships. Work hard, but get recovery time, too.

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