Staying in touch with your team’s day-to-day challenges is important. It shows you’re willing to get out there, get dirty, and understand their jobs.
One of the worst types of leaders to work for is the one who’s checked out—the one who has no basis in reality or understanding of what their team does. These individuals don’t always appreciate the hard work that the team does. They also don’t understand the challenges and constraints that the team faces, which can lead that leader to put unreasonable expectations on the team. You need a reminder to stay in touch with your team’s reality. To get out there, get dirty, and understand their jobs. Getting dirty can also get you respect.
My reminder and my maxim for staying in touch with my team’s reality is a very simple statement: “He’s under the tank, sir.” When I was in the army as a young platoon leader, there was a field problem. We were out in the field, and we were pulling maintenance on the vehicles. The colonel, who was a very senior officer, came looking for me, probably to yell at me. He was always yelling at me for one reason or another. He came up to my tank and walked up to my driver who was an 18-year-old buck private. My driver saluted and the colonel saluted him. The colonel asked my driver, “Where’s Lieutenant Figliolo?” My driver pointed to a pair of boots sticking out from under the tank. The colonel looked at my driver quizzically and replied, “No, where’s Lieutenant Figliolo?” I was an officer, and in the colonel’s mind, officers are not under tanks. So my driver again pointed to the pair of boots sticking out from under the tank. He said, “He’s under the tank, sir.”
The colonel bent over and yelled my name. I sat up under the tank, smacked my head, and crawled out from under the vehicle. The colonel said, “What are you doing under the tank?” I said, “I’m fixing the track, sir.” He looked confused and asked me why I was fixing the track. Again, the colonel had a view that officers don’t fix track. Officers give orders and read maps. He said, “Why are you fixing the track?” I said, “‘Cause it’s broken.” He got very confused and stormed off. He forgot why he was even there to talk to me.
Well, the reason I was under that tank and my driver wasn’t was because my driver had been at it all night. He was exhausted. I saw he needed a break, so I told him, “You know what? My work is done, I’m done with the map, and I’m done with the orders. Give me the wrench and let me go work on it for a little bit.” I crawled under that tank and I turned a wrench. That story got around the unit before lunch time. I had soldiers from other units coming to me and saying, “Hey sir, do you have any room in your platoon? I think I’d like to come work for you.”
I did it because it was the right thing. I had a member of my team who was tired. I went in and did the same work that they did. But that choice, that decision to crawl in the mud and turn a wrench, sent a very strong and clear message to the members of the entire unit. It said, “I’m not above any work that I ask you to do.” It built a great deal of respect for me. It also helped me understand the challenges that the members of my organization face on a daily basis. I learned that you bang your knuckles up a lot under that tank, that it gets cold under there. I had a better appreciation for all the hard work that they do for me.
So as you think about staying in touch with your team’s reality, how are you going to remind yourself to step away from the computer, to get out of your office, and get out there to see what your team does? How are you going to demonstrate that you can do their job just as well as they can and that you’re not above anything you ask them to do? Has there been a leader in your past who rolled up their sleeves and got dirty side by side with you? Think about how you felt about that leader. Think about how much respect you gave them after that.
Conversely, have there been leaders that you worked with who tended to sit in their office? Have there been leaders who weren’t willing to get dirty and believed that the rest of the organization should work hard while they do something else? Think about how little respect you had for that individual. These stories are the basis for your maxim. Think about the trigger, whether it’s something somebody said, the name of the project that you were on, or the particular piece of work that was being done. Use that trigger to transport you back to that story so you can feel those feelings again, whether they’re good ones or they’re frustrated ones.
That trigger becomes your maxim. You can share the maxim and the entire story with the members of your team, and say, “He’s under the tank, sir.” Here’s the story behind it and here’s what you can expect from me as your leader. That maxim will be your reminder to make sure you stay connected to your team’s reality, build respect, and understand the challenges that your team faces.
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