Great Leaders: Take Input from Their Followers

I was conducting a leadership training class for a large fire department and I noticed a pretty big morale problem. When I started asking questions and getting to the bottom of the issue, I discovered that every decision that was being made in the...


I was conducting a leadership training class for a large fire department and I noticed a pretty big morale problem. When I started asking questions and getting to the bottom of the issue, I discovered that every decision that was being made in the department was being made without any input or...


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I was conducting a leadership training class for a large fire department and I noticed a pretty big morale problem. When I started asking questions and getting to the bottom of the issue, I discovered that every decision that was being made in the department was being made without any input or participation from the front line. Only management was involved in the process and every policy and procedure was being shoved down the throats of the followers who were most affected by these decisions.

People generally find it very difficult to buy into decisions, policies and vision that they didn't help create. If people have input and participation in the decision-making processes, they feel a stronger sense of ownership in the organization. The best fire departments in the nation recognize and implement this principle of leadership. When they are drafting their strategic plans, they solicit input and participation from every rank. They have representation at every level so the end result generally reflects the needs and desires of the team as a whole and not just a few, select members.

I have come across some resistance on this concept in some fire departments where the leaders believe "command and control" is the only way to get results. They are sadly mistaken. Command and control (essentially barking orders at people) is absolutely necessary on the fireground for incident command, but back at the station a command-and-control attitude hurts morale, squelches initiative and causes resentment.

Command-and-control leaders do not take input from others, much less solicit it. Their philosophy is generally rooted in the attitude, "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." They believe only people who have promoted into supervisory positions have the ability to come up with the best ideas. They see input and suggestions as a threat or challenge to they way they are doing things instead of an opportunity to do things better.

The U.S. military is known for its command-and-control environment and most people in the military would tell you this is necessary to maintain discipline and combat readiness. However, there are some great leaders in the military who are discovering that when the team is not at war, there is no reason to bark orders at them all day long. There is a very high turnover rate in the military and when asked, most people leaving the military will tell you they are sick of their "managers."

Captain Mike Abrashoff had command of the guided missile destroyer USS Benfold in 1997. In a two-year period, he took a ship of 310 navy personnel with an attrition rate of over 70% and turned that attrition rate to zero. Think about that for a minute. When he took command, over 70% of the people on the ship couldn't wait to get off. By the time he finished his command, no one wanted off the ship — in fact, people were clamoring to get on.

What did Abrashoff do to make this happen? He listened to his crew…all 310 of them. He interviewed every single person and asked them why they joined the Navy. He asked them how they could operate as a better team. He prompted them for ideas on how to become a better ship. He provided a safe environment where people felt like they could share their ideas and input without retaliation. He asked them what processes could be improved and then he helped them implement those ideas. It didn't matter if they were an officer or an enlisted person. The captain recognized that those closest to the problems on the ship had the best solutions for solving those problems.

One sailor pointed out that the crew was painting the ship six times a year. It was hurting morale and taking people away from training for combat readiness. His suggestion was to replace some of the metal nuts and bolts on the ship with stainless steel ones. Rust would no longer streak the sides of the ship and the incessant painting could stop.

A True Morale Booster

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