It’s Time to Credit the Lieutenants and Glamorize the Foot Soldiers

The other day I met for a coffee meeting with a new colleague. We wanted to better understand each other’s professions and objectives in the months ahead. He was actually in the midst of final interviews for a new job he hoped to obtain, and as he described it to me he suddenly glanced around the room to be sure that no one else was watching us. He then lowered his voice conspiratorially and confessed, “I actually prefer not to be the Number One guy. I’m better as a Number Two, supporting the company leader.”

His behavior got me thinking. Organizations have long-recognized the value of a great Number Two, the COO, the wing-man to a visionary leader. Yet when did it happen that publicly discussing this preference became something to hide, something to be potentially embarrassing or shameful to admit? Has the prevalence of and over-emphasis on “being a leader” led to this kind of reluctant admission?

A little less development, a little more recognition

Let’s face it, “leadership development” ranks as a pretty hot topic in business circles, and sure, even potential Number Twos can benefit from this kind of training. Yet, the push towards leader development might have had an unintended consequence: too many chiefs and not enough indians. Or, more accurately, the intensified belief by too many that they are qualified for chiefdom and not enough enthusiasm by others to engage as foot soldiers. For as attention on “being a leader” has emphasized the status of the word leader itself, it has equally diminished the importance of those who are not labeled as “leaders.”

Any great leader at an organization will acknowledge, “we are only as strong as our team,” and this is true. Therefore, organizations go to great lengths to coach and motivate their teams. Do members of that team, though, feel valued in their roles? Do they realize their importance in this role, particularly for excelling at the work their roles demand? Are they enthusiastic about “just” being a member of the team, or do they now aspire to move up and on as soon as possible?

I don’t raise these questions because I’m of the belief that great workers should be suppressed and kept in the roles they’re in, only to serve the organization’s best interest. Quite contrarily. I raise these questions because I feel that “leaders” get the undue share of attention, praise, training and development when their underlings do not, and this inequity ought to be changed, particularly at a time when the average millennial’s life expectancy at a company is less than three years and the workforce donut hole continues to expand.

To be fair, yes, at-large workforce development programs exist, and yes, some organizations do a great job at recognizing foot soldiers and leaders alike. Yet, the degree of diminishment of pride about and enthusiasm for one’s work feels like it continues to decline. When was the last time you heard someone wax poetic about their job on the production line, working in the accounts receivables department, driving the warehouse forklift, or holding the traffic sign at a construction site?

Perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future some of these foot soldier jobs will even be eliminated by workforce automation, but for the time being, these jobs wouldn’t exist if they weren’t needed. And many of these jobs are essential to the ability of an organization to serve its customers. Do the people doing these jobs, though, feel essential or respected? Do their leaders routinely and genuinely extol the virtues of these jobs? Do we, in society, regularly applaud them so that others aspire to be them? Are too many parents raising their children to expect to be “leaders,", even if they are only mediocre ones? Or are any parents raising kids to be really great do-ers?

The foot soldier role shouldn’t be something that people are embarrassed to fill – a fallback job where those in it feel like second-class citizens. It’s time we give a little more sex appeal to support positions. Organizations that depend quite literally upon foot soldiers, such as the U.S. military, have understood the value of this sex appeal for quite some time now, as witnessed by the ad campaigns for its four branches. Maybe we should all look to this kind of positioning as an example of how to elevate the stature of the everyday worker.

In a time of constant workplace flux, imagine what a little dose of consistent pride and enthusiasm would do for our overall productivity.

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