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Leaders Who Care

Two requirements for successful leadership are commitment to a task and concern for others. Both are necessary for leadership success. The effective leader cares about the work and cares about people as well. By caring so much, the leader focuses, energizes, and empowers others. In this sense, caring leadership is the universal key that unlocks success.1

Commitment to the Task

A concept in literature states: “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” The same concept can be applied to leadership—“No passion in the leader, no passion in the people.”2 If the leader doesn’t care about the task, the people won’t either. As Lee Iacocca said when he was the leader of Chrysler Corporation during a period of great uncertainty and struggle for survival, “The speed of the leader is the speed of the team.” People will never care more or perform better than their leaders do.3 Author Price Pritchett explains:

People always look at the leader when they want to take the pulse of an organization. Example says a lot. Do they see a person they can believe in? Can they have faith in whom they follow? Does the fire inside the leader burn hot enough for them to warm from the heart of that flame?

Commitment climbs when people see passion in the person out front. They catch the feeling. Commitment, after all, is a highly contagious thing. It is a spirit that stirs others, touches their souls, and inspires them to action.

The more consuming your commitment, the more you will draw your people toward you, and toward the task to be done. Your intensity—focus, drive, and dedication—carries maximum influence over the level of commitment you can expect from others.

Like it or not, you set the climate. People always take a reading on the person in charge. So when it comes to building commitment, you must lead by example, just as commanders must show courage if they want soldiers to show bravery on the battlefield.

If you provide lukewarm leadership, you will see the passion cool among your people. Commitment can’t survive when the leader doesn’t seem to care. So be obvious. Turn up the burner inside yourself. Let the heat of your commitment be strong enough to glow in the dark.4

To personalize the subject, how do you rate on leadership commitment? Do you have self-drive and determination that ignites and energizes others? Does your intensity burn bright enough to glow in the dark? Does your passion for the task stir others and inspire them to action?  Note: You don’t have to be an extrovert to be an effective leader. If you care about the task, people will know it. Ninety-three percent of feelings and attitudes are communicated nonverbally.

Concern for Others

The leader must also care about people. Genuine caring inspires trust among followers and this fosters honesty, allowing people to be themselves without fear. The word genuine is emphasized by Jimmy Johnson, the first coach to win both an NCAA championship and an NFL Super Bowl. Johnson believes the only thing worse than a leader who doesn’t care about his people is one who pretends to care. People can spot a phony every time. To understand the importance of concern for others, consider the words of leader and businessman Clarence Francis:

You can buy a person’s time. You can buy a person’s presence at a given place. You can buy a measured number of skilled muscular motions per hour or day. But you cannot buy enthusiasm. You cannot buy initiative. You cannot buy loyalty. You cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls. You have to earn these things. To do this the leader must believe that the greatest assets are human assets and that improving their value is both a matter of material advantage and moral obligation. The leader must believe that workers must be treated as honorable individuals, justly rewarded, encouraged in their own progress, fully informed, and properly assigned and that their lives and work must be given meaning and dignity on and off the job. If a leader has supervision of as much as one person, the leader must honor these principles in practice.5

To personalize the subject, consider how you rate on concern for people? Do you care about the well-being of others? Do they know it? Does your consideration for others create support and loyalty to you and your goals? Philosopher Tom Morris summarizes: The best leadership requires a combination of nobility, which is a sense of greatness and commitment to a vision, with humility, a counterbalancing sense of self that maintains a deep respect and concern for others.

Learning from Lincoln

Scholars unanimously acclaim Abraham Lincoln as a great leader. More books have been written about his life than any other U.S. president. As a boy, Lincoln’s own heroes were the Founding Fathers. He avidly studied their lives and was shaped by their values and conduct.6

Lincoln shows that leaders are not either-or people; they are masters of paradox. They care about the mission, and they care about the people. They focus on doing the right thing and doing things right, not one without the other. They think feel and act for the benefit of others and, in so doing, are true to themselves. They pursue the large and attend to the small, knowing that both matter. They are risk-taking and innovative, as well as patient and calculating. Lincoln could put his foot down firmly and be decisive without question, and at the same time, he was considerate and compassionate in all of his dealings. This is the kind of leader the world needs and the kind of leader that Abraham Lincoln was:

                      The people were divided and the nation was at war. Prejudice, cruelty, sickness, and death all waited at the door. In this hour, Abraham Lincoln called to Washington a soldier from the field. He wanted to talk with him about something important. The soldier was a good-hearted man, but he had neglected his mother. He had not written her for two years, and she believed him killed. She had asked the president if he could locate his grave. Lincoln talked with the young man sternly, but not unkindly. He told him that he must write his mother every week beginning now, or be court-martialed for a crime worse than treason: ingratitude. The record shows that one hour later, the young man left. About the time spent, Lincoln said, “It needed doing.”7

Lincoln thought the nation should not be divided and he thought the slaves should be freed. He was committed to these great goals. He also thought a mother should be spared unnecessary sorrow and grief, and that a son should be grateful and kind. He thought all these things needed doing and he did them because he cared. There may be no such thing as a perfect leader, but Lincoln was close. Those who would be effective leaders can learn from his good example.

People who visit The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. will notice his statue with one hand closed and the other open. The left hand is clinched in a fist symbolizing determination to preserve the nation, while the right hand is open, representing compassion in welcoming the South back into the Union. Lincoln thought that what matters to people is not style, but substance; not the entrance, but the exit. By word or deed, the caring leader makes the world a better place. (Visit this site for more). The successful leader cares about the work and cares about the people.


1.M. Mayeroff, On Caring (New York: William Morrow, 1990); and W. Bennis, “The Seven Ages of Leadership,” in J. Gallows, ed., Business Leadership (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

2. P. Pitcher, The Drama of Leadership (New York: Wiley, 1997); J. Shaffer, The Leadership Solution (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000).

3. L. Iacocca, Iacocca (New York: Bantam Books, 2007).

4. P. Pritchett, Firing Up Commitment during Organizational Change (Dallas, TX: Pritchett, 2014).

5. C. Francis, “Hippocratic Oath for Executives,” in J. Sargent, ed., What Every Executive Should Know about the Art of Leadership (Chicago: Dartnell, 1964), p.24.

6. G. Goethals et al., Encyclopedia of Leadership, vol.2 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004), pp. 911-15; D. Goodwin, Team of Rivals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

7. D. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership (New York: Hachette Book Group, 1991).

Related Readings

Leadership by James Macgregor Burns

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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