Malama i Ka Pono

The Hawaiian language is very beautiful, and it’s been a great pleasure to live here where I hear it spoken often. As a writer who loves words, the nuance in Hawaiian words and phrases inspires me. Words like aloha or ‘ohana have meanings much deeper than “hello/farewell” (aloha) and “family” (‘ohana), they also have contextual meanings as well. For example, the word aloha can mean “love” or “a friendly spirit” or even an “open sense of welcome.” ‘Ohana certainly means blood relatives, but it can also mean a wider sense of family or even community.

One of the words I really like is malama (“to take care”). The title of this post is malama i ka pono which roughly translates as “to take care of each other righteously,” or as Bill and Ted might have said, “Be excellent to each other.” My own amateur interpretation of the word malama is closer to “cultivate” and “care for deliberately” than merely babysit or nurse. When someone uses the word malama, they mean a commitment deeper than merely watching over someone; they take responsibility for their charge in a personal way.

What does all this have to do with leadership and personal development? Just this: leaders have to take care of their people. Situations can be stressful, tasks and deadlines can be stressful, and sometimes the leader must apply pressure to get the job done, but…leaders have to remember they’re leading people who must have enough left in the tank for the next task after the current one is complete. If a leader has the metaphorical throttle at the firewall all the time, he’s going to exhaust his team pretty quickly. An exhausted team might cross the finish line, but they won’t be ready for the next race (at least not quickly). In business as in the military, the next race often begins right after the last one ends!

American military leadership tradition is similar to the Hawaiian idea of malama, where we charge military commanders with knowing and caring for their troops on a personal level. We expect commanders to understand their Airmen’s drives and motivations, their struggles and strengths, and keep an ever watchful eye so they don’t expose the troops to unnecessary danger. Furthermore, while sometimes military leaders must send their troops into harm’s way, commanders also know not to spend everything on the current battle at the expense of the campaign. Even in peacetime or the safety of the rear area, military leaders understand the work is a marathon not a sprint requiring personal attention to the well being of the troops.

Since few in the private sector will be leading people in combat, what does all this malama business mean to those situations? The same principles apply, although the application may be a bit different. A private sector leader can malama his/her team by deliberately managing the stress level in the workplace. That care manifests in a number of ways: care for the workplace environment, distribution of workload, and most importantly treating subordinates with respect. A leader who’s shouting and waving their arms will increase the stress of the team and lower their productivity simultaneously. Furthermore, unlike the military a private sector employee can simply quit if the work is too abusive. Leaders can’t eliminate stress, and you shouldn’t try because a certain amount of stress is healthy, but leaders can and should be deliberate about how much and what kind of stress they allow. When a leader applies the principle of malama to their team, they see them as more than resources and will learn to cultivate their strengths and productivity.  A team who knows the leader actually cares about them, and has their interests as well as the company’s in mind is much more likely to perform at high levels. Conversely, teams whose leader is clearly out for their own advancement at the team’s expense is headed for disaster.  A leader who makes sure the workplace is safe, clean, and well-supplied is demonstrating malama.

So to sum up: if you want a high performing team, be a leader who lives malama in your approach to the teams you lead. Your people will return your care with performance and loyalty…from battlefields to bake sales.

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