Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an Office Personnel Management leadership academy. During three weeks of intense and quality training, there was one story in particular from our instructor that made a deep impression and has stuck with me after all of these years.
My instructor worked as a consultant in the business world. One time he was asked to consult for a company that had one section with very low morale. As soon as he walked into their office it was profoundly obvious. Everything about the work environment made it clear this group did not like their job, or each other. One of his first questions to the group was, “What do you do here?”
“We order monkey food,” was their reply.
Thinking perhaps this was industry jargon, he asked, “What do you mean, ‘you order monkey food?’ What does that mean?”
After longer conversations he learned that this group’s entire purpose was to order several different kinds of monkey food and coordinate its delivery to a warehouse. They didn’t know for whom they ordered it, and they didn’t know where it ended up.
To learn more, a field trip to the warehouse where the food was delivered was organized. When the group arrived, they asked to speak with the manager. When the consultant explained that the individuals with him ordered all the monkey food in the warehouse, the manager became interested and excited asking all kinds of questions, “Why do you order so much monkey food? What is it for?”
And so, the consultant asked where the warehouse delivered the food. He set up a second field trip for the office and the warehouse personnel. They arrived at a large research laboratory and asked to speak to the person in charge. When they were finally able to meet with the head of research, the consultant explained he had with him the office responsible for ordering the food and the personnel responsible for storing and shipping it. The head of research became overcome with emotion and insisted on shaking everybody’s hand. After he had said thank you a dozen times, the consultant asked him what they did at the lab.
“We do AIDS research here,” he answered, and went on to explain why they needed so many different kinds of food and how vitally important the food was to the overall research project.
The consultant reported that a few months later when he returned to the office that ordered the monkey food, the changes were remarkable. The office was cheerful and the staff was engaged with each other and their work. There was a huge banner on the wall that said, “We help people cure AIDS.”
The moral of this story, which has stuck with me for over eight years, is that people need to understand what they do and why they do it. Not just the nuts and bolts, and the forms and software. Not just technical data and schedules. Individuals need to understand the bigger mission and how they fit into it.
Every machine, organism and organization is complex. Some parts you can see plainly, and it is obvious what they do and why their contributions are important. However, it is the obscure parts, the not readily identifiable capacities, that you eventually recognize as crucially important elements in making something work – in creating success. What at first glance may seem mundane and inconsequential you find just as essential as the higher visibility roles.
There is no job within the Air Force that is more important than any other. There are no unnecessary Air Force specialties. Every unit, individual — whether officer, enlisted or civilian — in every organization has a critical role to play for Air Force victory.
Good leaders help their team understand their mission and their contribution. Good leaders make why just as important as what and how. Good leaders don’t just lead by example, they lead by perspective.
How does your job ensure mission success?