Become a Better Leader by Showing People You Care

The ability to communicate, motivate and show genuine concern may be considered skills, but they are much more important to the retention of employees than you may think.

One morning at the airport, I overheard a new employee talking about her new boss. “He’s a nice guy,” she said. “He makes me feel good about working here.”

Like many employees, this young woman is more influenced by her boss’s “soft” skills than his technical skills. His interpersonal skills were what mattered most: his ability to communicate, motivate, and show genuine concern. These soft skills are an important aspect of creating a high-retention workplace. When a manager lacks these skills, or actively cultivates their hard-edged opposite, workers who have choices will jump ship.

I experienced this myself when I went into the service right after college. My boss was a special person, a great boss. An experienced veteran and a former Special Forces medic in Vietnam, he was the type of person who always put the needs of others before his own.

One night I pulled duty that required me to stay up all night on New Year’s Eve. The next morning, when I still had several more hours to go, the phone rang. It was Joe, my boss. He and his wife had made something and he wanted to bring it over to me. While I don’t remember the menu, I’ve never forgotten the meal.

That one small act of kindness showed me he cared. It taught me more about leadership than all the degrees and diplomas handing on my wall. It confirmed the truth of the old military saying, “If you take care of your troops, your troops will take care of you.” It’s still true today.

The older I get and the more I see reinforces that leadership styles change with the times, but caring for people holds constant. Caring for people can’t be faked.

On the other hand, no manager should be a pushover. A caring manager must also be respected. Soon after my boss treated me to a meal, he gave me the worst chewing out I’d ever had. It hurt more and made a deeper impression on me because of the respect I had for him. When you respect someone, you always value what he or she has to say.

Businesses that do a good job selecting, training, and developing their managers will enjoy higher productivity and lower turnover. While it’s hard to measure the impact soft skills have on productivity, I strongly believe that an employee who feels good about working for a company or a boss will want to contribute much more than the minimum acceptable level.

In the years I have led people, I’ve never seen an “average” worker, only people who have the potential to become much better. I think it was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who said, “There are no bad soldiers, only bad leaders.” Average workers usually have average managers as their leaders. Exceptional workers have exceptional managers as their leaders. The only difference between the two groups is the quality of the leader.

I imagine that my first boss saw me as an “average” officer with a short attention span and as young, inexperienced, and scattered. Fortunately for me, he took the time to train and develop me, even though it often frustrated him. He was a true leader. He knew that leadership of people is a transformation process, and with the right tools and a willing attitude, he could make the transformation happen.

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