What executives can learn from Zach and Matthias

Shahrokh Shariat | © feelimage / F. Matern
Shahrokh Shariat | © feelimage / F. Matern

Two outstanding leaders, a military doctor and an entrepreneur, show how trust inspires exceptional performance

Zach, a friend with whom I did my residency in the U.S., was recently awarded the Medal of Honor from the U.S. Congress, the U.S. government’s highest military award, for his service in Afghanistan. What was he honoured for? Well, one day, American and Afghan troops were in the mountains of Afghanistan protecting government officials on their way to meet with local village elders. The troops were ambushed and attacked from three sides. One of the things my friend Zach was awarded for was running into the field of fire, risking his life to wound several of them and dragging a dead soldier out.

I was so proud to know Zach. After some time I asked myself: Where do people like him come from? Where does this deep feeling, this death-defying love come from? Eventually he received a medal for his willingness to sacrifice himself for others.

Sacrificing oneself and not the others

In business, on the other hand, we distribute premiums to people who are willing to “sacrifice” others – not themselves – for a benefit. One wonders: So are people like Zach the great exception? Are people like Zach simply exceptional people who are dedicated to serving others?

I have been proven wrong. Because it seems that our environment plays a large part in becoming like Zach. When the environment is right, each and every one of us has the ability to do such extraordinary things. When I asked people we call heroes who risk themselves – their lives – to save others about their motivation, I got the same answer from everyone: “Because you would have done it for me too!” I was deeply impressed by this sense of cohesion and mutual trust.

Man, a social animal.

So it is trust that we need for a functioning cooperation. The catch is that trust is a feeling. I can’t just say, “Trust me,” and you do. So where does this feeling come from?

Let’s look back, 50,000 years into the Palaeolithic, to the beginnings of Homo sapiens. A world of danger. Everything was designed to destroy our species, be it weather disasters or mammoths. In response, we evolved into social animals. We lived in a safety organisation – a tribe we felt we belonged to. Among our peers we felt safe as a result of trust and cohesion. For example, you could fall asleep knowing that someone from the tribe was watching out for danger. Not trusting each other would have meant, conversely, that everyone was on their own. Not a good plan to survive.

Leadership with trust

Today the world is still full of danger. Even at work, where many things make life difficult for us and try to prevent us from success: Economic fluctuations, uncertainties in the job market, new technologies or our competitors trying to outdo us – just a few of the factors that we have no control over in the professional context. The only variable we can influence is within the organisation: the right leadership. But how?

Great leaders put the people within their organization first. They sacrifice their personal gain and short-term profits for the benefit of the employees. The result is mutual trust and a strong sense of belonging. If this basis is missing, we are forced to spend our time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, which ultimately weakens the organization. On the other hand, if we feel safe, we naturally use our talents and strengths to ward off external threats. This is in contrast to the abuse of leadership. Such leaders constantly violate the principles of human coexistence. For they allow people to be sacrificed for their own interests. Great leaders, on the other hand, would never sacrifice employees to save the numbers – they would do the opposite.

Work ethics in a safety culture

Another example, as described by Simon Sinek in his book “Leaders Eat Last”: Matthias heads a production company that was hit hard by the economic crisis in 2008. The company lost 30 percent of its orders overnight and had to save ten million US dollars. As is usual for many companies, the board of directors considered reducing the workforce. However, Matthias strictly rejected this, as he saw in each of his employees not only a cost factor, but above all the people. He sat down with his team and they came to a fair solution:

Everyone – from the secretary to the CEO – was to take four weeks of unpaid leave. Everyone was free to divide it up and did not have to consume it “in one piece”. Matthias was convinced that it was better for everyone to suffer a little than for even one of them to suffer considerably through dismissal. The work morale improved significantly. In the resulting safety culture, people had the feeling that they could trust each other. And more than that, employees who could afford it spontaneously agreed to swap places with others – they took five weeks off, so someone else only had to take three. The numbers were also right: In the end, they even saved 20 million dollars.

What makes real leaders

Being a leader is a question of inner attitude and not of hierarchical position. We can all think of people in management positions who are absolutely no leaders, but nothing but rulers. We do what they say because they have authority over us. But we would never join them out of conviction. On the other hand, I can think of a lot of people who do not have authority but are leaders because they care about the people around them.

Such leaders take the risk before others do. They choose to sacrifice themselves to protect their people. And only then will their people give their all to bring visions to life. Because they know their boss would do the same for them. So this is the organization we’d all like to work for. And that is what true leaders are all about. (Shahrokh F. Shariat, 26.8.2016)

Shahrokh F. Shariat is head of the University Clinic for Urology at the Medical University of Vienna and blogs on derStandard.at.

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