To become a world-class leader, an executive must have at least some appreciation and respect for the more ethereal aspects of leadership, such as morale, cohesion and esprit de corps. Even better is to have a profound understanding of these moral factors. They are not easily measured and can be quite fickle, even fragile.

Morale is the willingness of an individual, a team, an organization to win and to succeed. There is a relationship to other personal and group factors such as mood and attitude, but it is a different beast. Morale is best described as a grim determination to soldier on despite hardships, obstacles and failures. When morale is high, organizations and individuals will keep focusing on a positive outcome. There is a hope and even an expectation that final victory and success will be attained. Thus, morale can survive even in the presence of a temporary mood of discouragement. However, if an atmosphere of defeat persists, then morale can quickly deteriorate to the point where only an extraordinary act of leadership, or luck, can pull it up again.

Cohesion and esprit de corps are even more intangible. Where teamwork is built on the willingness of individual team members to subsume their own interests in favor of group interests, esprit de corps is built upon the willingness to sacrifice oneself, if needed, for the interests of the group. This is a level of commitment that few organizations in business achieve. The common factor in both teamwork and esprit de corps is cohesion. The difference is one of degree rather than type. Cohesion is simply the degree to which individuals subordinate their own interests to those of the group. In teamwork, individuals are willing to work together to achieve a common goal. The level to which they are willing to sacrifice personal interests will determine the degree to which esprit de corps is a factor. Organizations such as well-led military units in combat are highly cohesive and are usually characterized as having strong esprit de corps. Poorly led units usually suffer poor cohesion and have low esprit. When this happens, units often disintegrate. A non-virtuous cycle of poor morale and even lower cohesion ensue. Consequently, military commanders zealously guard the morale and cohesion of their units, lest they fall apart under the strain of combat.

The example of military units is certainly the extreme of cohesion and morale, but the same factors must be assessed by any leader of a global organization. This is why world-class leaders make special efforts to maintain morale and cohesion within their organizations. Various crises, perceptions of unfair competition, official corruption, entry into new markets, economic recession and depression, conflict, disease, and government intervention are just some of the factors which sap the morale and cohesion of multinationals and other global organizations. Moreover, mergers and hostile takeovers can easily lead to panic, despair and other forces which undermine morale and cohesion. Consequently, any would-be world-class leader will do well to heed the signs of deterioration in any of these factors.

Here are some ways of building and maintaining high levels of morale, cohesion and esprit de corps.

  1. Adopt and communicate a higher purpose. For For a sports team this is achieved by focusing on victory. The same applies to military forces. Non-profits usually have a higher purpose built to measure because they exist for the good of others. For businesses, this can be admittedly harder to achieve, but it is possible. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras have described numerous companies that have excelled and thrived over a hundred years by adopting a higher purpose beyond simple profit-making.
  2. Lead by example. Nothing saps morale and cohesion quicker than leaders that say one thing and do another. In fact, this is probably the most fundamental and important principle of leadership. People will willingly put up with hardship and make sacrifices for the good of the organization if they know that their leaders are doing as much, if not than they are in this area.
  3. Be competent. Team members and employees will willingly follow and respect their leaders and managers if they know that they are competent. This may appear self-evident, but think of those occasions yourself when you and your colleagues felt your boss was incompetent, or simply not up to his responsibilities and tasks. How was your morale? Probably not very good, right? Competent leadership and management contribute greatly to maintaining morale and cohesion because people like to know that their efforts aren’t being wasted by inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
  4. Be honest with yourself and your team. If things are going badly, then admit it. Your people will appreciate the honesty and the courage needed to make that assessment openly. It will also allow you to adjust your approach to the evolving situation. By the same token, continuing with a plan when it is evident that it no longer meets the needs of the situation is pure folly and wasteful. People aren’t stupid. They would rather have an improvised plan that at least tries to meet the new realities than blind adherence to an original plan that is no longer relevant.
  5. Mobilize the talents of your people. This is critical to getting everyone engaged and fully believing in a positive outcome. Another benefit is that many heads are better than one for thinking about how to solve problems and to defeat threats, friction and resistance. No one individual has the ability to deal with every possible situation. Just as in nature, highly diverse teams where everyone participates in the solution have the wherewithal and the reserves to deal with many more types of situations than highly specialized and homogeneous one.
  6. Care for your people. All people will work harder, longer, and with more concern for the good of the organization if they know that the organization and its leadership will care for them and take their concerns into consideration. This doesn’t mean that the leadership has to acquiesce to every demand by workers and management, but rather that people will be treated with dignity, fairness and respect.

It is important to monitor the morale of your organization regularly. However, as intimated above, one should not be limited to expressions of mood. As we’ve seen, morale is much more than a good mood in an organization. Conversely, a bad mood can be indicative of bad morale and a breakdown of cohesion, but it is not necessarily always the case. The effective leader takes special pains to know what is happening, what is being said, by whom, and for what purpose. The best way to do this is to get out of the office and walk the floors of your organization. Talk to people. Ask them what they think about your strategy and plans. There will be the inevitable griping and whining, but overall, you might be surprised at what you’ll learn.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

  1. Richard,

    Great article and we couldn’t agree with you more.

    One dimension to add to the mix is:

    Remember there are generals in the trenches too.

    Leaders are cultivated at all levels of the organisation, whether at the top or those that are on their way up. Talent management systems should encourage open and honest conversations in an open-loop system to ensure that the knowledge at the frontline of the organisation is quickly and directly fed back to the top, so that this information can become embedded in the learning and continuous improvement culture of the organisation.

    Too often organisational leaders forget to stop and ask the ‘general in the trenches’ the important feedback questions, mostly due to a closed-loop or half-a-loop communication systems not encouraging frank, open and honest learning conversations to take place.

    Crisis management mode in organisations generally closes off this vital flow of communication.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    You’re right, although I wouldn’t call frontline people “generals in the trenches.”

    Military forces talk about “soldier sensors” because they are the most valuable source of raw intelligence data, especially in counterinsurgency operations.

    Unfortunately, most organizations fail to successfully cultivate and capture the information and knowledge generated by frontline workers. To the point of this post, this can undermine morale and lead to a breakdown in communications, sometimes at the worst of times.

    I think many leaders in organizations fail to get out and about and to talk to their people because they are afraid that what they will discover might not conform to their preconceived notions. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there and to risk criticism and questioning.

    Richard Martin

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.