Years ago I had one of those "aha" moments that stay with you for a lifetime. It occurred as I visited the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Fort Eustis is the home of the 7th Transportation Brigade and its museum chronicles the history of transportation in the U.S. Army dating from its beginning with the Continental Army in 1775 to the present.
Seeing history and understanding the crucial role that the Transportation Corps played and continues to play in the development of the Nation was inspiring. The "ah-ha" experience wasn't about equipment and logistics, however.
In years long-since past, the first exhibit you viewed as you entered the museum was a wall containing all of the campaign battle ribbons dating back from the earliest American wars and military conflicts. At the top of the wall is a quote that should inspire every leader at every level in every organization. The quote is from a tough-minded leader who is known for his ambition and passion for results ... Napoleon.
The quote said:
"A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of colored ribbon."
The cynics and detractors will interpret the quote through the lens of ridicule. For them, it reinforces the notion that people can be manipulated into doing terrible things for the sake of upholding someone else's sense of what is important.
These people miss the point.
Napoleon was sharing a message that every leader should learn and embrace - people willingly volunteer their commitment to a cause they view as important and a leader they trust.
Lately, I've spoken with leaders in a wide variety of industries who worry that they are ill equipped to engage a generation that is defined by the premise that everyone gets a trophy. They struggle with giving enough recognition even with generations that haven't been raised on it. They wonder if they will be forced to double their investment in "stuff" to communicate their appreciation.
There is good news if you are one of those leaders. Napoleon's quote is still relevant.
Yes, you need to give more recognition. But the truth is that you should have been doing that for years. No one has ever received too much legitimate recognition for their honest efforts and results.
The recognition and encouragement you provide doesn't have to be valuable in monetary terms. It is, however, essential that it is intrinsically valuable on emotional and psychological terms. In other words, it must be sincere and stand for something important. Despite the stereo-types to the contrary, many of the next generation of workers will voluntarily take a pay cut to work in an organization that matches their values.
Likewise, your efforts to engage and energize your workforce are multiplied when there is a connection to you and to the goals of those you lead.
Show people how their hard work and great results both advances the organization's cause and helps them achieve their career goals. Be specific. A casual "good job" doesn't create meaning and connection.
Most important, earn their respect and trust to gain their loyalty.
This takes effort. In Napoleon's world, loyalty was given because of the position. Today, it must be earned.
Think of a teacher, mentor, or coach who meant a great deal to you. Did that person expect more of you or less of you? When she or he expected more, were you more or less likely to do whatever it took to exceed those expectations? Was your desire to excel primarily based on their position or on the respect and trust you had for them?
It doesn't matter how much recognition you think you give to others, there is room for more as long as it is sincere and that it stands for something important. If you do the work, you, too, will find that it is amazing what people will do for a piece of colored ribbon.