“Out of every one-hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” | Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher
“… one is a warrior …”—in business, that one is the owner or leader*.
For the first time in modern history, the workforce is made up of five generations of workers. For guidance about what each generation of employees wants from their work experience, it has become far too common for leaders to turn to generational stereotypes. Leaders need to let go of these stereotypes and instead, focus on the employment factors that matter to all generations.
There is extensive documentation showing that the primary reason workers from every generation quit their jobs is an unsatisfactory work environment, as defined by the company's culture. To counter this, it falls upon each company’s leadership to clearly convey and explain the mission, vision, and core values that support their cultural foundation. Mere communication of these values by the leader is not enough; they must establish the standard through their own actions.
The leader's next task is to assemble a team that embraces the company culture and refuses to accept subpar performance from their colleagues. This is in line with Heraclitus and his army of a hundred, wherein "… ten of the men shouldn't even be there ..." Though this might sound severe, it underscores the frequent scenario where leaders hire hastily or retain employees due to the belief that any warm body is better than none. These employees then fail to integrate with the culture, leading to discord and draining the team's vitality. Their work ethic is lackluster, and they erode the culture for the remaining eighty-nine members.
Core values serve as the guiding principles that a business employs to govern its internal and external relationships. These values must be consciously practiced in every decision undertaken by both leadership and employees, including the critical aspect of hiring. Otherwise, leadership disappoints the rest of the team by hiring the ten who do not align with the company's core values.
In Heraclitus's army of one-hundred, he discusses the eighty who serve as mere targets. This characterization doesn't cast a favorable light on the majority of the army. In the context of business, those eighty individuals are akin to worker bees—the team members who faithfully show up every day, adhere to a set schedule, and diligently execute their assigned tasks. They don't seek recognition for their efforts and typically lack flashiness or a quest for glory. Instead, they contribute with unwavering dedication. Without their essential contributions, the company's success would falter, and those remaining would face elimination.
The final members of Heraclitus’s army are the nine who are “… the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them …” Identifying these exceptional individuals within the business will prove to be a significant accomplishment. They are the ones who can be entrusted with assignments, without hesitation, knowing they will give their all to whatever comes their way. Among these are the managers who voluntarily dedicate overtime and weekends, demonstrating a willingness to go above and beyond to accomplish the designated task. Undoubtedly, their presence is a highly valuable resource for the company.
Being a business leader today is considerably more challenging than at any other point in history. As previously mentioned, many leaders find themselves ensnared in a pitfall of attributing the difficulty of recruiting and retaining the eighty-nine employees to the task of managing five generations, each of which has matured in vastly dissimilar eras, accompanied by distinct core values, communication styles, and technological aptitude.
But the stereotypes associated with generational differences can be disproven.
In Abraham Maslow's 1943 research paper "A Theory of Human Motivation," his hierarchy of needs outlines the fundamental aspirations of every individual within the work environment. First, employees need to fulfill their basic requirements, which include food, clothing, and shelter. Then they seek job security and well-being within both their home and work settings. As a further layer, individuals yearn for the gratification of their psychological prerequisites, including a sense of belonging, affection, and self-esteem. Finally, perched atop Maslow's pyramid are the needs for self-fulfillment, entailing the realization of one's utmost potential.
The leader aspiring to be "… the one …" who unites the team across generations will need to create a work environment that fulfills the hierarchical needs of the eighty-nine. The employees’ basic needs are addressed by providing competitive, top-tier pay for each position, aligning with the broader employment market. The leader then addresses the remaining needs in the hierarchy by mastering these five initiatives with their team.
- Inspiring Motivation: Understanding that employee development is a long-term initiative that also offers short-term benefits such as improved employee performance and positive employee self-esteem. Recognizing that some employees do not aspire to be managers, but they desire their manager to genuinely care about them and support their personal development.
- Being Purpose Driven: Encouraging employees to openly question other employees’ actions that are contrary to the company’s core values. Recognizing that using behavior-based core value questions in interviews fosters hiring the right people and building a team that shares the same beliefs.
- Creating a Supportive Environment: Recognizing that trust is ultimately about building relationships that are authentic but with vulnerability. Being purposeful in building and managing trust.
- Encouraging Empowerment: Creating an environment that celebrates failures as well as wins. Establishing a culture of transparency and placing a strong emphasis on telling the truth even when it hurts. Encouraging employees to communicate with transparency without the worry of being judged negatively. Creating trusting teams where people aren’t afraid to ask for help or say they made a mistake.
- Showing Recognition and Appreciation: Acknowledging and appreciating team members' contributions and achievements, fulfilling their esteem needs and boosting morale.
The business leader embodying the essence of a warrior must harmonize Heraclitus's philosophy of adaptability and resilience with Maslow's focus on addressing the team's needs and nurturing a supportive work environment. By doing so, they can proficiently steer their diverse, multi-generational workforce through the intricacies of the business realm, empowering them to realize their shared goals.
* While work and war are similar in many aspects, we realize, of course, that the stakes and consequences of war are much higher, involving loss of human lives and the safety of nations.