Leadership generally involves two aspects: tasks and people. Often, it seems to be easier for us to give our attention to tasks than it does it people, and it also seems that most leadership books focus more on strategies related to tasks than to people. Maybe that’s because tasks are more definable and more easily organized and planned, while people are more unpredictable and require more emotional investment. But whatever the reason, I believe that a truly effective leader understands the value of people, and knows that people are more important than tasks. It follows then, that a good leader will take care of people.
When I first entered the world of education as a teacher, I was blessed to have both a headmaster and a principal who invested in me and cared about me. And it wasn’t just me; they cared about all of the faculty and staff. I received wonderful support, constructive criticism, and guidance that helped me to develop and flourish. Then there came a time when I experienced some particularly difficult personal circumstances, when the trials of life were overwhelming and I was struggling to manage. During this time, these two individuals – my leaders – lifted me up and walked along side me. Out of these circumstances, and from these leaders, I learned the value and importance of taking care of people.
When I eventually had the opportunity to become an administrator of a school, I carried that experience with me. It became one of my core values, as a headmaster, to take care of the people who worked with and for me. I did it because it had been done for me and had meant so much to me as a teacher, but I soon learned the value of this practice from the leader’s perspective. I learned that when I genuinely cared for and took care of the people who worked for me, the security and significance that resulted for them produced two beneficial responses: 1) they could focus their energy and effort on doing their jobs well, because they were not carrying fear or anxiety from job insecurity, and 2) because they knew I cared, and had tangible evidence to support that belief, they then cared about me and were willing to follow me with enthusiasm.
Kevin Leman and William Pentak communicated this same idea in The Way of the Shepherd, stating clearly, “You have to really care about people. You can go through all the right mechanics, but if you don’t genuinely care about the people who report to you, you’ll never be the kind of leader they’ll drop everything to follow” (2004, p. 27). The point is, people need to know that they matter, and they need to know that you care. And although leadership is about both tasks and people, the mistake that we can easily make is to let tasks and agenda prevent us from caring about people (I spoke about this in a previous post, on the importance of being relational). When we are focusing on ourselves rather than on others, it becomes too easy to think that we must know enough and do enough to lead people effectively, but in reality – as I have frequently heard stated – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Robert Greenleaf, who first developed the modern leadership theory of servant leadership, shared that people “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (1977, p. 24). He went on to say that a servant-leader is servant first, which “manifests itself in the care taken . . . to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (1977, p. 27). Essentially, “servant leadership emphasizes that leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them” (Northouse, 2013, p. 219). This is the leader who shows his people that he cares about them, and it’s a genuine care (because they can tell if it is not). And this is the type of leadership that I first experienced as a follower, and learned to appreciate so much that it became a primary characteristic of my own leadership.
So I would say to you: People matter; take care of them. When their needs are not being met, they become insecure because they are now concerned about their own needs. When they are insecure in their jobs, they won’t (and can’t) give you their best efforts, because they can’t give you all of their attention – they are now focused on protecting their own needs. When you haven’t shown them that you care about them, you prevent a mutual relationship and response of trust and support, and they are unwilling to follow you wholeheartedly. It may cost you some sacrifice to genuinely care and to take care of them, but the reward in their response will far exceed the sacrifice you make. So, take care of them. And do it because they matter.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (25th Anniversary Edition). Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.
Leman, K., and Pentak, W. (2004). The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.