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The Caring Leader

There’s a hard-headed business case for expressing concern about employees’ well-being.

In an Army infantry unit packed with tough combat veterans, our sergeant major was the toughest.  Built like a slab of concrete, he had completed multiple deployments with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. As officers, my colleagues and I technically outranked him. But if he had told us to jump, we would not have hesitated to ask how high — and how soft we should land.

The most impressive thing about this tough leader was how much he cared.

When he first came to our battalion, he gathered all the officers together for a leadership development session. Then he played a video of the classic children’s story The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree describes an enduring relationship of unconditional and self-sacrificing love between a tree and a little boy. In the silence after the video ended, he uttered a simple command before dismissing us: “Be the Giving Tree for your soldiers.”

It was the most powerful leadership training I had ever received.

Through the medium of a familiar children’s story, he charged us to care to about our soldiers more than ourselves. I watched his philosophy of caring yield incredible results in the unit, both in garrison and in combat in places like Mosul and Sadr City.

From the streets of Baghdad to the boardroom, care has proven to be an effective tool for leaders.

The power of caring has also been proven in the corporate world. Take the example of Paul O’Neill, who served 12 years as CEO of Alcoa before serving as treasury secretary for President George W. Bush. One of O’Neill’s first actions upon becoming CEO of Alcoa was to introduce an obsessive focus on worker safety. This act of caring, which raised hackles among members of the board of directors, produced results. Under O’Neill’s tenure, Alcoa increased productivity and lowered worker accidents — and grew income significantly.

Academic studies have shown that there are proven benefits to developing a caring attitude.

• In a study (pdf) involving 69 self-managed teams in a Boston University MBA course, Steven B. Wolff, a researcher and consultant, administered surveys to participants working on a case project measuring, among other factors, their level of caring behaviors. He found that caring behaviors, such as expressing concern over well-being, understanding another’s perspective, and speaking warmly to colleagues, generated a sense of safety and trust and were associated with a pervasive and positive impact on satisfaction and engagement, as well as learning and task outcomes.

• In 2014, a group of Harvard researchers conducted a longitudinal study of 3,200 employees in seven industries. Using surveys and statistical analyses, they found that employees who felt they worked in a caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork, had less absenteeism, and had better organizational results.

Of course, caring for business colleagues doesn’t always come naturally to leaders. It takes conscious effort and practice. The first step is to recognize that caring — and demonstrating that you care — brings benefits.

The next step is a counterintuitive one: Get in touch with your own dissatisfaction. Think about that first Monday back after a long vacation, the challenge of dealing with a difficult boss, the disappointment when a deal goes bad. Choosing memories that evoke negative emotions and experiences will help you get in touch with anxiety over the future or fear of failure. Then, recognize that your team members are experiencing the same frustrations and worries as you. Just as you want to be free from anxiety and stressful emotions and thoughts, so do your employees. This simple reflection naturally generates a desire to help others with their dissatisfaction, and can produce the optimism and energy necessary to do it.

Finally, think about the ways in which your success would have been impossible without the help that others — including loving parents, supportive teachers, and empathetic mentors — have provided. Then consider that continued success will require further assistance from others, including work colleagues. This realization provides a self-interested reason for leaders to care about the well-being of their team members.

Hard-core individualists who doubt leaders’ need for supportive teams should consider the famous study by Harvard Business School professors Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda, and Nitin Nohira. They studied more than 1,000 “rock star” analysts — securities analysts named by Institutional Investor magazine as among the best in their industry over a period of eight years, from 1988 to 1996. They found that when stars switched firms, their job performance fell and they rarely reached the heights of their previous success. The causes of this performance plunge are multifaceted. But the authors concluded that losing the teamwork and relationships at the places where the analysts became stars were important contributing factors.

There are, of course, risks to caring too much. A study by Middle Tennessee State University professor Mark C. Frame suggests that the higher up the organization one is promoted, the less his or her care is valued. Leaders should combine caring with some level of assertiveness and independence. Although our sergeant major cared about his soldiers, he still put them through tough training. Yes, he made us watch a video about The Giving Tree. But when a soldier required discipline, the sergeant didn’t hesitate to mete it out swiftly.

The image of the shouting alpha-wolf leader as someone who gets results has been shown to be a myth. From the streets of Baghdad to the boardroom, care has proven to be an effective tool for leaders.

Augusto Giacoman

Augusto Giacoman advises companies on people and organizational issues for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. He is a principal with PwC US, based in New York.

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