Keep The Troops In The Shade

I’ve written many times about how a leader’s most important responsibility is taking care of the people under his/her charge. A mission focus is important, but unless someone is leading robots, then leaders have to take care of their people. The phrase we often use in the military is “Keep The Troops In The Shade,” which is shorthand for a leader looking after the welfare of his/her people.

I think no matter what enterprise you’re engaged in as a leader, making sure the people who do the work are cared for, and know they are cared about, is vital to the success of your organization. It’s certainly true in the military where we often refer to the individual Airman or Soldier as “The Human Weapon System,” but it’s true in business as well.


(photo courtesy of

I wrote about the subject extensively in my book, Leading Leaders, but as the quote from JW Marriott demonstrates mine is not the only voice on the subject.

From Leading Leaders

In the military, there is a saying that illustrates how leaders see their roles regarding the care of the people under their charge: leaders eat last. What this means is that the leader has to provide for her people before accepting comforts for herself. There are plenty of stories about officers dining in opulence while the troops shiver and eat cold food, but that’s largely a Hollywood stereotype with little basis in fact. A good officer or sergeant makes sure his troops are fed before eating themselves. They also share in the suffering of their troops. If it’s cold meals out of a bag for the troops, it’s cold meals out of a bag for the leader. This behavior demonstrates to the troops that they have value and that the leader himself is committed to their well being and willing to share in the discomfort of even the lowest ranking Airman. If Airmen are going to accept orders that might put them in harm’s way, they need to know their officers aren’t making those decisions with callous disregard for their safety. It’s a matter of trust between the leader and the team.

That translates to the private sector easily: executive or managerial perks should be used sparingly, and the leader should personally check on the working conditions of the team. Know if the workplace is too hot or too cold, if the bathrooms are dirty or in poor repair, if the food in the employee cafeteria is lousy or not, or if Mary Smith is exhausted because she’s worked a double shift two days in a row. Don’t be afraid to send someone home to get some rest or request an employee take a couple days vacation so that she can recharge her batteries. The slight drop in productivity because Mary is allowed to go home early will be made up in spades by a team that knows you’re more concerned for their well being than your own. Those sorts of leaders are the ones people want to work hard for, and that sort of leadership inspires people to give their best.

Over at, Marla Tabaka has a great rundown of simple ways to help your employees know you care about them and their personal well being.

Did you know that stress-related health care and missed work are costing employers $300 billion a year? Heck, for a small business even $3,000 a year is a lot. It’s time to pay attention to your employees’ stress levels, not just because it’s costing you but also to show them you care.

You’ll want to read the whole thing.

The bottom line is this: the basic task of leadership is managing and inspiring people. An effective leader understands the people under his/her charge are the real reason for the success of the company.

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