The most important humanitarian leadership lesson

Googling “leader” or “leadership” gives us great definitions and different perspectives. It goes from command and control to creating a vision and inspiring people. Leadership skills has definitely evolved since the last century and constantly change. We can read a lot about leader vs manager and all that goes with this from command and control to inspire and empower. Nevertheless, in corporations, reality is that a leader (former manager) is a hierarchical position given to a “talent” (many times a technical performer) to command, perform, control and report to a “bigger” leader. But even in this model, we have what people would call a “real leader”, and through my different experiences and talking to teams, it spontaneously goes to a simple sentence: “she/he is someone I would follow no matter what”.

It was tough for me to evaluate in the business world and current organizations how true the “no matter what” is. It might be easier in flat liberated organizations to do so but still…

Thinking through this, took me to my humanitarian experience in the Lebanese Red Cross where I served several years during moments of tensions, war, crisis and terrorism that hit Lebanon. The Lebanese arm of this international humanitarian organization is practically the only emergency medical system in the country taking in charge all “human” emergencies. The team in the Red Cross is extremely diverse; different ages, backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, studies, etc. Nevertheless, we all – truly and deeply – shared the same values, the exact same vision and mission, the same “why”: to help and serve people in need. Being a leader in this organization suddenly looks simple no need to create a vision or inspire for teams to follow you: people come for the same “why”, volunteer, perform, grow and have a real social impact as a team… It’s thus all about coaching them, teaching them emergency techniques, managing them not to perform errors when in an emergency, commanding them to perform the right moves when on the field with a patient and making sure they keep this “flame” and this “why” to keep on volunteering and coming day after day… Easy!

Let’s dig a little deeper though: war, bombing, real life-threatening risks, not only in your community… Would you really follow the leader “no matter what”?

Why would your team follow you in the ambulance? Why would they litterally risk their lives, hear what you say, and execute what you ask? Why would they go into a risky war zone and follow your commands on the field? Because of the “why”? Because of the “adrenaline”? The “heroic act”? The nice “story to tell their kids”? Probably all of that, but the single foundation for me stands to the TRUST you created as a leader… The trust that you won’t let them go, that you would risk your life for them, that you’d go save them if anything touches them, that you’ll back them up, that you’ll run for them as they would do for you, that you’ll care not only for them but for their families and community too… But is this enough? Certainly not… It’s also the trust you create as a leader in the organization they work for and serve. We were out in war zones with no fear because we trusted each other, we trusted our organization and believed that “it” will protect us no matter what, that the leaders will be there, the community will stand for us, the country… We were maybe naive but it taught me this single leadership principle: BUILD TRUST (honest true trust). Without trust, without this “safe” environment, without a real genuine caring community, without love, you can manage, decide and command by hierarchy but will you be leading teams willing to follow you “no matter what”? The “why”, the vision, the mission and the values are the basis of success in any business or organization, but all those without TRUST might bring performance and growth BUT in moments of tensions, moving risky environments and stress would people stay here with you and follow the leader “no matter what”?