Now the peak of the pandemic seems to have passed, we are still trying to pinpoint exactly how our internal state and outer productivity are interrelated.
Beyond this semantic quest, a word to describe these dynamics will help leaders focus and build on the well-being we have been trying to promote for the last three years.
Due to my experience in managing personal energy, I am often invited to talk about this topic – and yet, I have not found a label that coachees can easily share with their teams.
The breakthrough came from a very surprising field: military leadership. They call it ‘morale’ and it has been the key to how well soldiers carry out their missions for centuries.
The concept was embodied and patiently described to me by Stephen Kilpatrick, a former British colonel who saw operational service in multiple global locations as well as two tours as an instructor at the UK’s world-renowned military leadership academy, Sandhurst.
What is morale?
Morale, or sense of well-being, is a key feature of a soldier’s life – and as any military commander knows, it is a critical consideration in his/her approach to leadership. There are many definitions of morale, but the following sums it up well:
Why does it matter?
Soldiers are asked to behave in a certain way, both individually and collectively, often in physical discomfort or under emotional stress; to do so they must be motivated and energized to perform those tasks, often at considerable personal risk. Whilst motivation can come through coercion, the energy to engage and stay engaged can only come from a sense of wellbeing and purpose, a conviction that the task is worth the effort. Napoleon said that ‘moral(e) is to physical as three is to one’.
How is it produced?
The formula is not straightforward and requires careful thought and experience to ‘strike a balance’ amongst the constituent components. For example, whilst perhaps enjoying a relaxed regime, the morale of a poorly disciplined unit can only hold up for so long until it is undermined. Similarly, a unit operating under a highly strict regime might function well for a while, before the highly restrictive atmosphere will overcome a sense of well-being and reduce morale overall, affecting the ability of the group to operate. The challenge for a commander is to strike that very fine balance in all the factors that influence morale, such as the intensity of training, the time committed to rest and recovery, the attention to entertainment, the investment in career management, and others.
Boosting morale doesn’t mean going easy
As a young, newly commissioned commander of a platoon of 30 young men, Stephen made the mistake of placing popularity before professional reputation when he allowed the delivery of the soldiers’ mail to interrupt an important briefing on live firing training. His heightened popularity lasted no more than five minutes, but not only did he lose their attention to the musings of wives and friends, most critically, he detected a sharp drop in the faith of his experienced and battle-hardened corporals. It took Stephen months to regain that faith.
Thirty years later, he assumed command of an infantry battalion of 650 men and women, and it was suggested that they might cancel the Friday battle run as a way of celebrating his arrival. Tempting, but no. He had the battalion run hard that day – and every Friday from then on, finishing the run with wry smiles on their faces which concealed a certain pride that said: “This is what we do – we train hard to fight easy.” Stephen notes that throughout those 30 years he made many slips, but the need to invest thought and effort in the soldiers’ morale was ever present.