Being a leader means being there when it counts the most.
When National Journal asked former staffers to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to share memories of their iconic boss, they remembered exciting policy battles, big legislative victories and challenging political times. But their favorite recollections had little to do with the substance of their work. Instead, they relished small personal gestures of kindness and compassion.
What touched Kennedy's employees most? The senator's offer of help when a relative was diagnosed with cancer. His concern about junior staffers' ability to pay their rent during a government shutdown. The bottle of wine he sent to an aide and his parents at a Washington restaurant. The thank-you notes. The phone calls at tough times in staffers' lives. These things cost Kennedy little but some time and thought, and they are what people remember.
The same phenomenon often happens at federal workers' retirement parties. Good-bye ceremonies don't tend to dwell on the office issues that consumed civil servants' working hours. As they leave Uncle Sam's payroll, workers usually say what they'll miss the most is the people they worked with. They think of the times their bosses and co-workers helped them through personal difficulties. They remember the gratitude their managers showed them for a job well done. They recall funny jokes their co-workers greeted them with in the morning or kind words offered at the end of the day.
In Kennedy's case, it just so happens he attracted some of the hardest-working people on Capitol Hill to his office year after year. Many former aides cited his kindness as part of the reason they were so loyal and dedicated to him. He was so often there for them when it counted the most.
Being a leader does mean being there for your employees. But neither Kennedy nor any other good leader has done so to boost loyalty or productivity. Providing comfort to subordinates is a basic duty of leaders who choose to accept positions of responsibility in other people's lives. In times of personal crisis, people look to their leaders for assurance that things will turn out OK, they can take some time to deal with problems and at least their workplace remains a source of solid support.
Good leaders go one step further by acknowledging employees' humanity in the ordinary course of business. If workers put in late nights and weekends to help the office get through an onslaught of paperwork, a good leader will send notes thanking them -- and their families -- for sacrificing their personal time. Good leaders offer tokens of appreciation to their people, like that bottle of wine Kennedy sent to his aide.
Everyone who gets a paycheck -- from Uncle Sam or any employer -- is compensated to do a job. Every worker is there to work. Every manager is there to manage. But in the end, the work isn't the reason everyone is in each other's lives. The real reasons are found in the moments everyone remembers at the end of their careers. They're usually found not in a computer-generated office memorandum, but in a handwritten note.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.
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