I’ve had the privilege of reading a lot of American Civil War history. As part of this, I’ve read hundreds of letters written by soldiers in the field. Dozens of times, these men referred to a particular experience that tormented them, filled them with fear, and nearly destroyed their will to fight. I want to describe this experience to you and then apply it to your leadership.
The facts were nearly always the same in each letter. A great battle would happen during the day. Men were wounded and left on the field. Night would settle, and these wounded men would begin crying out to their comrades for help. Yet because of a bright moon and the presence of snipers, the buddies of these wounded men couldn’t leave their trenches. This meant their wounded friends had to suffer alone on a dark battlefield, and they had to listen to them cry out in agony all night long.
It was an experience that devastated men’s souls. They not only cared about their dying friends, they knew that one day they might be in the same situation. The thought terrorized them, and that terror nearly drained every bit of fighting spirit from their souls.
Now, you are not likely to ever be in this exact situation. Yet I have seen leaders allow much the same situation by not caring for the suffering of some of their employees. The resulting disillusionment and loss of spirit amongst their team members has nearly been devastating to their firm.
It usually goes something like this. A new computer system is installed. Sally, a devoted worker, doesn’t seem able to get up to speed with the new system. Her work suffers. She’s in real agony. Fellow workers sometimes see Sally in tears of frustration. Sally is terrified of losing her job and of what that will mean for her disabled son. Nearly everyone she works with knows about this situation. Yet the boss does nothing. And Sally becomes like that wounded soldier crying out all night on the battlefield. She is suffering. Her unanswered cries for help send waves of disillusionment through the troops.
I have seen similar situations when a worker’s health hinders their ability to do their job and no one in charge steps in to help. I’ve seen it when a worker gets too old and infirm for their current role. I’ve seen it when a personality clash between a long-term employee and the new young boss creates pain that echoes loudly. I’ve seen it when offense causes an employee to spread bitterness but no supervisor takes note.
Most leaders work hard to build cohesion. Most leaders do all they can to build and care for their team. Yet it only takes one bleeding person, untended and seemingly alone, to send a fearful signal into every soul in the firm.
Here is the lesson: Tend the wounded. Tend the hurting. Tend the embittered. Tend those falling behind. Be kind. Be generous. But move quickly. Much that you have built can be undone through even a short season of neglect.