Happiness Spotlight: Leadership

7 min. read

Great leadership is based on actions, not personality

Leadership affects employee happiness in many ways—most of all because employees develop a sense of trust and respect for good leaders. When employees trust and respect the leadership they have, their happiness with their workplace and job grows like a plant in good soil.

Leadership is simply defined as "the action of leading a group of people or an organization." Leadership is actionnot a style, or a quality of personality, or eloquence at speaking. Leaders do actions that help other people get things done.

Thinking about leadership, many people first imagine a charismatic person giving a rousing speech to subordinates or posing impressively where something incredible is happening. Perhaps this is because of fictional stories of dashing leaders, or depictions of famous leaders in popular media. But that common idea is not a full and accurate description of what it means to lead.

One well-known depiction of leadership is a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. The painting is based on a real and very important historical event. In the painting, Washington towers near the front of a boat crowded with soldiers, his eyes fixed on the far shore. The soldiers are struggling to steer the boat, and many more boats appear in the background following his. It appears to us that Washington leads by simply standing there, magnificent and determined. History though has given us the true story: Washington led by action.

The crossing took place on Christmas Day, 1776. Washington's Continental Army had faced many defeats during that year, and morale was so low that many men were thinking of leaving without permission. He knew that his army needed a success or it would surely fall apart. He had information that a vulnerable enemy force was on the other side of the icy, forbidding Delaware River. If he could get his army across, he could beat the enemy force by surprise and provide a vital boost of victory for his men. The plan of attack had to be kept secret, and the conditions for a crossing could not have been worse. But Washington's actions were a masterclass in leadership. Let's learn from them.

Making Purpose-Driven Decisions

One of the key actions of leadership is making decisions. Leaders assess the situation, consider the possible things that their team or organization can do, then choose the best one. The best choice is the decision that most effectively advances the organization's purpose overall.

Washington and his Continental Army had an overall purpose of defeating and ultimately driving the British Army out of the colonies. When Washington was at the shore of the Delaware river, he had other options: he could have taken his army somewhere else, fled by road or gone down the river, or he could have stayed where he was and tried to defend his position.

Faced with the decision, Washington knew that he could only advance the overall purpose of driving the British Army out of the colonies if his own army survived. He also knew that the only possible way for his army to survive was to make a successful attack somewhere, even if that carried risks. So he made the choice: cross and get something done before all was lost.

In a workplace, leaders make decisions every single day. Some are bigger than others. It's not often that we make a choice that is as significant to us as a daring, Christmas Day maneuver across a treacherous river. That said, all of our decisions are significant. We handle decisions that could increase or harm our sales, or grow or shrink our companies. These decisions can ultimately bring us closer to or farther from our purpose. Only a clear commitment to purpose can help us keep the decisions on track.

Delivering Consistent Messages

Communicating to employees on behalf of the workplace on the whole is another leadership action. Communication consists of delivering messages: sets of ideas that that the leader wants everyone to understand and adopt. Some messages require repeated communication. Important messages are always worth delivering over and over again until everyone gets it. Messages must be consistent, because if they vary the ideas communicated will become confusing. Repeating messages in a clear and consistent way ensures understanding and gradually brings everyone on board.

Some messages are more challenging than others. Messages may ask employees for things like understanding, empathy, persistence, courage, or effort. These challenging messages can be the most powerful. Washington's successful crossing gave him an opportunity to share an important message—that the Continental Army could outmaneuver, overwhelm, and defeat the British forces even when things look incredibly tough. He would rely on this message frequently over the next seven years of the war. He would repeat and remind his army that their effort, daring, and courage could give them victory even when things looked bleak. The Continental Army would prove through its successes that it had learned that message by heart.

Giving Service through Leadership

The most potent kind of action that leaders can do is service. Service simply means helping or doing work for someone else. It requires setting aside one's own needs and desires and fear of risks. That enables a leader to accept responsibility for others' needs, desires, and risks.

Washington asked a lot from his troops in leading the Delaware crossing. Knowing they had staked so much by agreeing to go with them, he set aside everything inside him and focused on how he could help them.

Few men in the army knew how to pilot the boats that would ferry the troops over. Washington placed himself in one of the lead boats alongside an experienced pilot, surely knowing he was at great personal risk. Working with the pilot he directed signals to be exchanged to the other boats in the crossing, and made sure his men arrived in the right place. Later, standing on the shore before the attack, snow began to fall and a chill wind blew. An unknown soldier on his staff wrote this in his diary:

I never have seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife. The last cannon is being landed, and we are ready to mount our horses.

Certainly our workplaces are not the Continental Army, and our work may not be as historic as the American Revolution. But lessons of leadership written so brilliantly in history help us shine light on the smaller, but still important, job of leading we have today.

Leadership is one of the 12 Critical Workplace areas that we measure and improve at Amazing Workplace. If you want to learn more about how employees feel about leadership, Amazing Workplace can get you there with our Employee Happiness Survey. To learn more, send us an email at info@amazingworkplace.com.