A few years ago, my company undertook a special project for a major client. It included training, coaching, and the development of processes to improve the client’s efficiency in delivering outcomes desired by their customers. In doing so, we approached a world-renowned expert in key aspects of the project, suggesting that he deliver the keynote address for our training. After negotiating his fee, he agreed. We were thrilled to bring him on board, knowing that his presentation would add credibility to our work.
The project proceeded to the day our expert would deliver his presentation. We arrived two hours early to set up the training room. This involved hefting about a dozen large bins containing props, handout materials, and electronic equipment into the building. Parking was about a football-field’s length from the facility—and it was snowing steadily. Fresh deep snow prevented the use of carts, so each box required hand-carrying.
Our keynote speaker arrived at the venue about the same time we did. As we began lugging our containers, he waved to us, then walked into the building. When we caught up with him, he was comfortably seated on the stage. With most boxes still in our vehicles, I suggested that we could use his help.
His response stunned me. “I have a PhD,” he said, “and I don’t do manual labor.” I thought he was joking, so I responded, “Hey, we won’t hold your PhD against you if you help us.”
Looking directly at me, he said, “You may hold it against me if you wish, but I’m not carrying boxes!” Surprised, I simply replied, “Okay, we’ve got it covered.”
Our expert was masterful in his presentation, for which we were most grateful. But there was something “aristocratic” in his unwillingness to lend a hand that was off-putting. He was clearly an icon in his field, but was he the type of leader others would want to follow? Had his education and expertise caused him to adopt an air of superiority, an attitude that saw certain tasks “as beneath him?”
There is a story told about men building a bridge during the Revolutionary War. The task was formidable for only five men and one officer, who was clearly overseeing the process. A mounted rider came upon them. He approached the officer in charge, commenting on the apparent difficulty of the undertaking for so few men. The officer agreed, saying that they certainly needed more help. The rider then asked, “Why don’t you help?” to which the officer replied, “I am a Corporal, sir! I don’t do this type of work!”
The rider dismounted, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work, helping build the bridge. Well after dark, the job was done. The rider remounted his horse, once again approaching the officer. “Corporal,” he said, “The next time you need extra hands to do manual labor, please be sure to call upon your Commander-in-Chief. I will gladly come!” General George Washington then galloped off.
My question is, are we, as leaders, like George Washington—or are we like the Corporal or the PhD?
One of the most prevalent and critical problems in business today is the lack of employee engagement. Related to this is the loss of key employees, of talent leaving for greener pastures. On average, only about 3 out of 10 employees are fully engaged, 5 are semi-engaged, and 2 are totally disengaged. Business success, then, is essentially reliant on the work of the three who are fully engaged. Unfortunately, these employees, being overburdened, often burn out. They are frequently the talent who jump ship!
As leaders, we must acknowledge our critical role in dealing with these challenges. Do we encourage engagement by our own example of being engaged, even when the task may not be what we deem to be “executive work?”
When we distance ourselves from our people through self-importance, we lose three vital things:
- Essential two-way communication. We become deaf to the problems and opportunities our people see in the business.
- The support of others in our own heavy burdens. It is, indeed, “lonely at the top.” But being aloof and disconnected make it even lonelier.
- The respect of highly engaged team members, and the opportunity to grow the respect and commitment of those who are less engaged.
There is some validity to the phrase, “rank has its privileges.” Perhaps the greatest privilege is that of being highly engaged with those whom you lead!”