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ANZAC Day, and what teenage soldiers can teach us.

I’m just starting to thaw out after a very moving dawn service on a chilly Melbourne morning. Walking away from the Shrine of Remembrance in search of one of Melbourne’s famously good coffees, I was explaining the concept of ‘Stand To’ to my daughter, now a 20 year old student at Melbourne Uni. As a 17 year old in my final year of high school, I began my military career with a short stint in a South Australian Army reserve unit.

‘Stand To’: Just before dawn, an infantry unit will be woken by the last picket, and will lie in defensive positions. The first light starts to produce shapes out of what was inky blackness, and we watch and wait for the enemy to attack. Often freezing cold and covered in dew, the minutes pass slowly while we look over the barrel of our rifles, and eventually with the sun above the horizon, we rise and launch into our morning routine…magazines are checked and filled, boots are cleaned, and brews are made.

My daughter asked why so many people want to do this job…why volunteer for hardship, cold and exhaustion.

The answer to this is the secret to how you can engage your staff, and it works whether you are leading a special forces patrol, or are an office manager in an insurance company.

A teenage boy joins the army. What starts as a quest for adventure, and the oft stated and admirable desire to ‘serve my country’, ends up with the recruit finding that they have found a new family.

It is this feeling of belonging, these bonds between group members which are the hallmark of highly engaged teams all over the globe. And it is these bonds which are behind acts of bravery and courage under fire.

So, how does the army engage this teenage boy?

As a new recruit, he will be frozen, exhausted, sleep deprived, yelled at and generally beasted for a period of months, yet after graduation from his basic regiment training, he will be so engaged to this new family that he may tattoo its name on his chest. During his ‘boot camp’, there is a relentless focus on the team; the individual means nothing and it is ONLY the team’s performance that counts. Golden Rule: “Be the grey man, and help your buddies”.

Those around him who weren’t team players quietly quit. And the bonds between those who were left grew stronger. He found that this focus on his team members meant that his new ‘family’ would lift him during his low points, whether by helping him over an obstacle, filling his water bottle or making him a brew. They sacrifice themselves for him.

The symbols of his new family are highly visible; badges, berets, customs and traditions. But these are all proxies for what really motivates him…to support his mates; to give of himself to his team. To repay the loyalty they have showed him, and to never, ever fail them. To be a ‘Jack Man’ is the biggest insult in the Australian military. It means you are prioritising yourself over your team, and no one wants to be Jack.

So what does this mean for you in your bank, engineering firm or startup?

The secret is not running a boot camp, but is in what the boot camp creates; social bonds, loyalty, feelings of family.

As always, the tricky part is the HOW. How do we do this when we can’t starve, freeze and scream at our employees?

As a leader, the way to build these feelings of loyalty is to sacrifice yourself for your team. Show them that you come second to them, and to the organisation. There are a million ways to do this, and they will vary in every industry. Sacrifice your time. Sacrifice your energy. Sacrifice your own recognition. Sacrifice your rewards. Sacrifice your sleep. Sacrifice your meals.

Make it a habit, and make it genuine, then sit back and watch how it transforms your organisation.

Engaged staff CAN be a reality. You CAN have the lowest staff turnover in your industry, and it IS possible for you to have teams who go ‘above and beyond’ at every opportunity.

Sacrifice yourself for your team.

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