Ultimate Software's Blog

What is the Best Way to Lead?

What are the traits of great leadership for the future of work? It’s a question I am often asked by audience members during my varied speaking engagements. It’s a great question, since leadership—like everything else in today’s blistering pace of change—must be dynamic.

Leaders must evolve as employees do, to direct organizations that operate and are managed differently. I’m referring to the movement in many companies toward project-based teamwork involving both full-time and non-permanent employees, tasks performed on a mobile “anywhere” basis, and the positive trend toward employee inclusiveness, in which each person’s self-defined uniqueness is seen as the asset it is. (See my related post, Are You Ready for True Workforce Fluidity?) Certainly, this is not your grandfather’s business to lead.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, companies were often run with military precision. During World War II, 10 high-ranking management theorists were recruited by the U.S. Air Force to enhance operations. When the war ended, Ford Motor Company snapped them up. They inserted the military’s “org charts” into Ford’s structure, creating divisions, departments, and jobs based on a person’s specific expertise. This ensured work was appropriately doled out, supervised, and completed. Other companies soon incorporated similar structures across the industrialized world.

As one might imagine, leaders of these businesses were akin to military generals. They commanded the organization from the boardroom, rather than the war room. This structure was right (for the times) and proved its merit. American companies quickly became the best in the world. And then the Internet, smartphones, the cloud, cognitive computing, and the Internet of Things burgeoned to seriously change things—democratizing decision-making and communications.

So what is today’s definition of “great leadership”? To draw a clearer picture, I turned to the source of the last century’s business leadership model—the military. I asked Lieutenant General George Flynn, now retired, for his perspective on the subject.

Lt. Gen. Flynn enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration and the Commanding General of the Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia. He is an advisor to Ultimate Software and many other corporations, and is a brilliant resource on leadership strategy.

You may know Lt. Gen. Flynn as the inspiration for a book by the best-selling author Simon Sinek. Sinek had interviewed him to learn more about the Marine Corps’ style of leadership. He boiled it down to these three words—“Officers eat last.” Sinek was so taken with the response he named his book after it (Leaders Eat Last). I recently sat down with George to ask what he meant by his comment.

“It’s really pretty simple,” he said. “If you treat your team as the most important resource in your organization, they become committed to you and the purpose of the organization. It shows your respect and the fact that you care so much about them that they deserve only the best. And that includes eating first, beginning with the most junior officer and ending with the most senior officer.”

He added, “That’s the ‘cost of leadership,’ as I explained it to Simon.”

This leadership philosophy seems at odds with today’s corporate guidance. Few CEOs know the names of employees other than their direct reports. Many of them eat with other senior executives in a separate part of the company cafeteria and have large offices away from the rest of their employees. Certainly, this is not an “officers eat last” approach. Rather, it suggests rank—people separated based on their perceived value and contributions to the success of the organization. There is a shift happening in some companies where CEOs are forgoing offices for shared office space, and the impact is significant for employees. As George put it, “Whoever is leading must form trusted relationships with those being led.”

Our discussion moved on to today’s millennial workers. George commented that this generation of employees tends to demand more from its leaders. “They want to know the ‘why’ before they buy into the project,” he explained. “When they believe in the value of what needs to be done, they’re very giving of their time and effort. They’ll go the extra mile if they understand the purpose behind the tasks and believe in that purpose.”

Without this understanding, millennials (really all employees) are more likely to search for new employment. To keep them, leaders must ensure they have meaningful work that leads to the development of new skills. “Millennials need to be trained and empowered to take risks on behalf of the organization, to progress in their careers,” George said. How can today’s business leaders, particularly those at the helm of large, far-flung organizations, ensure full buy-in from the “troops”? George responded that there are specific times on any given day when a leader can demonstrate valued leadership. “We call them ‘defining moments,’” he said. “The moments differ, but examples include how the person makes a difficult decision or handles a mistake. Word of mouth quickly spreads to form an opinion about the leader.”

These opinions are the basis for following the leader. “In my experience, I’ve come across three levels of leadership,” said George. “The first is when people follow you because you’ve been given the authority to control them. The second is they follow you because they trust you and will, therefore, take risks for you. The third level is they follow you because they believe in you and your mission. At that level, they’ll make personal sacrifices for you. Down deep, all people want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

I couldn’t agree more. When we feel we are part of something important led by a leader we believe in, work becomes much more than just work. It becomes part of our purpose and identity.