First Line Leaders Get it Done

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U.S. Air Force Photo, 2BW/PA

It does no good for the commander to sell a grandiose vision if the sergeants and team leaders aren’t buying. Furthermore, if the first line and mid-level leaders are undermining the commander’s vision, then the ensuing lack of respect for the institution begins to break down the team just as surely as if the leader had a personal breach of integrity. It falls on those same first-line supervisors to implement the commander’s vision and to do it in such a way as to communicate the enthusiasm the commander himself has for the endeavor. The difference between a mediocre organization and an excellent organization is often these first line leaders’ commitment to the company vision. That commitment is measured in how that first line leader can translate the task he or she’s been given with sufficient enthusiasm to get the employees motivated to excellence.

That’s why the military spends so much effort to develop their first line leaders. We depend on sergeants to give the orders that get their soldiers moving. They must understand the commander’s objective so well that they can make it simple for their small group and then improvise on the fly if necessary.

Business is No Different

The same is true in business. The team leaders and assistant managers must understand the boss’ agenda and then sell that to the employees as if it were their own idea. It is counter-productive for the assistant manager to stand up at the beginning of a shift and announce in monotone that “corporate has decided that we’ll….” Employees have already stopped listening. What that assistant manager has to do is tell his team the “what and why” and motivate them to achieve both for their own fulfillment and to achieve the company’s goals.

It’s also incumbent upon leaders at all levels not to merely “sell” the company line but to understand as best as possible the reason their boss came to the decision they did. This is a very important point. First line leaders have the most responsibility to motivate and train the people who actually do the company’s work. “Because I said so” has a finite lifespan and becomes very tiresome when used too often. The company leadership should arm first line leaders with the “why” so they can tell their teams. Employee morale and effectiveness starts at the team leader level; employees who rarely or never learn the “why” will soon believe they are unappreciated. Once the downward spiral of morale begins, it’s difficult for even the most talented leaders to rescue it. Executives owe it to their company leaders to ensure that they not only understand the task but also understand the why. Not every first line leader will agree with decisions made above them, but if she is to pass on the company’s direction successfully, she’ll need to understand why senior leaders made the decision in the first place.


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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