A Study in the Art of Servant Leadership

“Know your Marines and look out for their welfare.”

“Employ your Marines in accordance with their capabilities.”

These are two leadership principles the Marine Corps instills into its leaders at all levels, regardless of rank or seniority. These principles are taken seriously, as they can mean the difference between mission success and failure, life and death. Despite the stakes being different in the business world, these two concepts are vital to a leader’s success and, more importantly, that of their subordinates.

In our technologically infused, fast-paced world of business, the speed and amount of information available to us is unprecedented. Transactions now move faster, decisions are made quicker, and we’re able to collaborate and complete tasks more rapidly. However, leaders have largely missed one important side effect that can degrade the performance of their teams. Behavioral scientists call it the cognitive load, and it takes a toll on our teams more than we realize.

Simply put, the cognitive load is the mental “work” needed for any thought or action. Every task, conversation, email, project, meeting, etc. has a cognitive load price tag, and we all have a different capacity for what we can take on. This is why we spend hours refining our presentations to our leadership – there’s just too much information for them to consider and they want you to reduce the cognitive load required to make a decision.

As you can imagine, technology has provided a great many ways to maximize our cognitive load. As good as this may be for business, your team members may be exceeding their cognitive bandwidth without knowing it. This results in cognitive strain. Daniel Kahneman describes cognitive strain. Daniel Kahneman describes cognitive strain in Thinking, Fast and Slow as “being affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands”. So, cognitive strain for our team members is caused by their current tasks and everything else they have to worry about during the day. This strain can lead to less creativity, lowered ability to focus on the task at hand, and ultimately degraded satisfaction and fulfillment.

Of course, I wouldn’t outline a problem without providing some helpful ideas to consider to help manage cognitive load in yourself and your people. There are ways for you to address the cognitive load issues your teams experience.

  1. Know your team. Understand where your team members come from, how they think, and what’s important to them. There are so many benefits to this, and it helps give you a mind’s eye into how much bandwidth each individual team member has.
  2. Look out for their welfare. Sadly, too many leaders miss this by becoming hyper-focused on finishing a project, closing the next deal, or hitting a metric while disregarding the welfare of the teams they should be serving. When you develop a sense of responsibility to look after the welfare of your team, you begin to understand how they work and how to set them up for success. You’ll know what to adjust and how to assign projects based on what you know about them. Which leads us to our final tip.
  3. Leverage your team members’ capabilities. We all have our own talents, and if you spend time on topics 1 and 2, you’ll have a better idea of how to set your teams up for success. Employing them in accordance with their capabilities will not only result in higher quality outcomes, but it also makes your teams happier and contributes to a healthier culture. It also reduces the cognitive strain if your people can leverage their strengths more often.

As leaders, it’s important to understand the capabilities and limitations of our team members. Regardless of your level, it’s your responsibility to ensure the company goals are achieved, but it’s equally your responsibility to ensure the welfare of your subordinates. When you work to understand your team, mitigate excessive cognitive strain, and challenge your people to leverage their strengths, you become the servant-leader your team deserves.

Your success is made possible by your subordinates, not your superiors. Serve the ones who serve you, they deserve it much more than anyone else.