Leadership : Morale As A Reflection On Leadership

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotive service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

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Several years ago, as a fairly large company that I was working for struggled with ownership and significant financial issues, I had the President of the company ask me to explain concerns with morale I had expressed in a weekly staffing and operations report. I went on for several minutes because I truly believed these issues were having an effect on my region and the employees I was responsible for. In mid sentence, half way into my explanation, the company’s chief executive, my ultimate boss, impatiently cut me off and asked, half sarcastically, “Has anyone quit yet?” I would love to tell you that he was kidding or that he misunderstood what I was trying to say or the seriousness of what I had observed but ultimately he asked the exact question he wanted to ask. As far as he was concerned that unless we were suffering a mass exodus, morale was not an issue and that we needed to move on.

Perhaps believing that I had somehow miscommunicated or not quite believing what I had heard, I tried to re-explain to restate the urgency of what I was observing. I looked around the table at the other regional managers and the General Manager for support but they were much quicker at reading the situation or maybe just smarter and all of them seemed to have a sudden interest in the pattern on the carpet underneath the table. No help or support there. That stands out to me as a watershed moment and though the company did not survive those ownership and financial issues, I remain astounded by the narrow minded stupidity. Morale matters!

Resisting the temptation to pull some moment from history where an outnumbered group, armed only with sling shots and high morale, were able to win the battle, save the day and overthrow the tyrant king, I would simply note that the search for examples of where morale has had a decisive factor in how something turned out are numerous beyond counting. In more practical terms I would note that teams that have high morale are always more productive, always have lower rates of illness (and death), and always have lower turnover. It would seem that morale is important and it would seem that high morale is something worth striving for. A damn shame you can’t buy it or grow it or steal it from the successful shop down the street. A very strange one in and among all of this is limits. Most people respond very well to knowing their limits (both physical and behavioral), knowing the rules and knowing what is expected. It seems that if we construct a job for our employees with all the limits and rules and penalties, we seem to go a long way toward assuring good morale. Those crazy human beings that make up our staffs apparently like knowing what to expect from us and the job, what is expected of them and strangest of all, they like to know how they are doing against all these expectations. In other words they want structure and they want reassurance. How unreasonable is that?   

What is morale?

I went to my roots on this and pulled out a copy of FM 22-100 on Military Leadership but found this manual had changed a lot since I graduated from the NCO Academy in Ansbach Germany back in 1977. I couldn’t find a great definition. In part it described morale as “a measure of how people feel about themselves, their team and their leaders”. I guess I agree with all of that but I think it needs to talk about a willingness to suffer hardship and overcome adversity or any obstacle with high morale and a lack of that willingness and a tendency to quit or give up with low morale. Morale either allows us to persevere or causes us to quit. And morale does not only refer to a soldier on the battlefield. Morale is universal and can impact brokers on Wall Street, nurses, teachers, fast food workers or that technician in the third bay. It affects women just as it effects men, the old as well as the young and does not care what language you speak. Morale is a purely human characteristic or condition.

Leadership combined with knowledge of those we would lead can always create activity and motion but a certain charisma will often transform those compliant followers into impassioned zealots. There is no doubt that we have to be able to articulately communicate our goals or our vision and somehow in this, we have to make them relevant to our followers, make them see what we see and want what we want and do what we would have them do. Thomas J. Jackson, whom you might know as “Stonewall” Jackson, was a civil war general very famous for pushing his people beyond human endurance and asking of them more than would seem humane or possible. Somehow these troops always delivered, somehow these tattered scarecrows always accomplished their various missions and somehow these half starved soldiers always enjoyed high morale, low desertions and won many great victories against very long odds. Would it surprise anyone to know that Jackson’s men did not love him? He gave them victories, he gave them status and he shared their hardships. In return they were willing to give him their all.
Who is responsible for morale? 

The leadership is responsible for morale. Whoever is in the corner office, whoever is making the decisions, whoever is assigning work, determining raises and whoever is in charge. Morale is a primary leadership function. If you are a great leader I would be confident in saying your people have great morale. If you are challenged by leadership or are a lousy leader, I am very confident in saying your people suffer low morale. Morale is a direct reflection of leadership. It allows us to work beyond our endurance, to put up with the harshest of working conditions and even have us motivated and asking for more in the midst of all this. On the other side beautiful facilities, great equipment and the latest and greatest electronic gizmos won’t, by themselves, overcome bad morale. It all comes down to that leadership thing and your ability to connect and communicate and motivate those damn human beings that make up your staff. It all comes down to you.

Ó Copyright Brian Canning 2007

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