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Know Your People. Encourage Your People

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I’ve been reading Stanley: Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal. It’s the biography of Henry Stanley of “Dr Livingstone I presume” fame. Actually, he never said that. Evidence points to Stanley inventing that line, a bad move since it made him the subject of ridicule in many circles.

Stanley accomplished so much. African travel in the mid to late 1800s was incredibly dangerous. Explorers faced disease, starvation, cannibals, theft of vital supplies, and mutiny. To carry out such expeditions required leadership, in dire circumstances, and for many years without relief.

After reading about Stanley I admired the man in spite of his many shortcomings. Admittedly the only book I have ever read about Stanley is Tim Jeal’s book and some may not agree with him, but it cannot be denied that Stanley, to accomplish what he did, had to be a great leader.

But Stanley was far from perfect.

Know Your People

Stanley was said by his white companions to be a dour man who showed favouritism to his African bearers over his white expedition members. He knew very little about his followers because he isolated himself from them. Despite this, they followed Stanley – up to a point.

That point came when Stanley had to split his expedition into two, leaving behind people too sick to travel, along with a force of fitter officers and a doctor. It was because of the atrocities committed by this rear guard that Stanley’s reputation was destroyed.

One of the rear guard was so intrigued by cannibalism that he purchased an eleven year old girl, whom he then turned over to a cannibal tribe so he could document her being killed and eaten. This debauchery was only one example of many and shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There can be no doubt that Stanley should not have appointed many of the people who were on his expedition. In previous expeditions, Stanley meticulously handpicked his men. But on this ill-fated expedition, he allowed somebody else to pick most of his expedition force. Stanley’s input was much lower than usual. He made a big mistake in not choosing his own people.

But many of the problems with the rear guard came from the fact that Stanley left the wrong people behind. Because he didn’t know his people, he chose the wrong ones to leave behind. To quote Tim Jeal:

Ignorance about his officers was the price Stanley paid for isolating himself. He failed to grasp that any man facing privation needed encouragement, whatever his background.

Even though he had the wrong people on his expedition, had he KNOWN this, he would have taken those people with him on the advance force, where he could keep an eye on them.

Encourage Your People

Stanley also did not offer encouragement to his expedition members. Morale was understandably low, and Stanley knew this. He had been on similar expeditions before and had a good idea of what his people must be thinking. Sick, facing death daily, nearly starved, and in unfamiliar territory, their leader did nothing to boost their emotional states. No wonder they ran amok the first time he turned his back.

Your Team

You will never take your team through the privations through which Stanley took his, but your team needs your help to get them through tough times.

Team members have both personal and business problems. The more problems you help your team members solve, the more barriers to peak performance you strip away.

It costs you nothing to (sincerely) pat somebody on the back and tell them they are doing a great job. It costs you little to take individual team members for a coffee and get to know them better. And to encourage them to be the best they can be is one of the joys of leadership.

Know your people. Encourage your people. Be the leader.

Gary Pittard
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