Engage Heart, Mind, and Spirit: Create a Morale Advantage

The final deciding factor of all engagements ... is the morale of the opposing forces. Better weapons, better food, and superiority in numbers will influence morale, but it is a sheer determination to win, by whomever or whatever inspired, that counts in the end.

Study men and their morale always.

Field Marshal Wavell

A vital responsibility of any leader is to heighten employee morale.[1] Doing so supports unity within the group and taps the inner strengths of individuals. As worthwhile, it prevents them from faltering when stress increases due to harsh market conditions. Morale also tends to energize individuals with the resolve to act decisively under competitive pressures, which, at critical moments, could be the “final deciding factor of all engagements.”

As a dominant form of behavioral expression, morale affects day-to-day employee performance and contributes ultimately to how well a business plan is implemented. Consequently, morale, in its most pragmatic form, functions as a gauge of how people feel about themselves. In particular, it shows the extent to which individuals will participate in a team effort and the confidence they show in their leaders.

Morale, then, is shaped by common values, such as loyalty to fellow workers and a belief that the organization will care for them. Where morale is at a high level, it results in a cohesive team effort “with a sheer determination to win.”

The appropriate season is not as important as the advantages of the ground; these are not as important as harmonious human relations.

Sun Tzu

Successful leaders know that in the face of the inevitable problems and reversals, morale holds a group together and keeps it going. They tend to use a variety of approaches to create “harmonious human relationships.” Most are offshoots of two dominant methods: the popular, participative, and touchy-feely style that many executives embrace today, which is diametrically the opposite of the autocratic style that is less prevalent among major organizations, but still finds a home in some top firms.

A noteworthy example where the two dominant approaches lived successfully (at different times) is Home Depot. From its beginnings in 1979, store managers enjoyed immense autonomy to make their own decisions and run their own operations. Founders Marcus and Blank had installed a decentralized, entrepreneurial business model and used a highly personalized leadership style. While the work was demanding, the company grew in a low-profile, collaborative, and mutually respectful working climate. With its humanistic managerial and leadership methods, the Home Depot chain expanded to become one of the largest retailers.

A turning point came in 2000 with a change in management, which began a managerial and cultural transformation. Compared to its cultural heritage, the managerial changes were venturesome and audacious.

Built on a military organizational model, the then- CEO imported ideas, people, and concepts from the armed forces. Overall, some 13 percent of Home Depot’s employees had military experience, versus 4 percent at Wal-Mart.

Sweeping moves were initiated to reshape Home Depot into a more centralized organization with a command-and-control management structure. Every major decision and goal at Home Depot flowed down from headquarters.

The approaches rested on building a disciplined corps that would be predisposed to taking orders, could operate in high-pressure environments, and execute strategies with high standards. The spirited methods rekindled stellar financial performance during the CEO’s tenure. At its highest point, sales soared, growth rose at a double-digit rate, and profits more than doubled.

Which leadership style is better? Should either be considered a consistent style for all seasons? What benchmarks should be used to determine style: customer satisfaction, degree of competitive aggressiveness, employee performance, stock price (if applicable), gross margins and profits, or high levels of innovation and inventiveness shown by employees?

How about the working climate? Should there be a hardball working climate? Should the surroundings match the innate personality of the leader? Or should it be a flexible work environment that correlates with competitive conditions?

Also, what value would you place on employees’ attitudes? To what extent do they impact morale, spirit, and the seeming intangible of heart on the outcome of your business plan?

What steps should you take to adopt either of the two leadership approaches? What commonalities exist between the two styles—if any?

Loss of moral equilibrium must not be underestimated merely because it has no absolute value and does not always show up in the final balance.

It can attain such massive proportions that it overpowers everything by its irresistible force. For this reason, it may in itself become a main objective of the action.


  • [1] Morale intertwines with other influences, such as personality, creativity, experience, and intuition.It also includes the emotions, culture, and psychology of individuals, as well as the influences oftraining and motivation developed within the organization.
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