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Want to Be Successful? Put People First

Leaders who put people first during a crisis will foster teams that are adaptive, creative, and resilient despite adversity.

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I will never forget the first time I thought I would die. It was October 1994, and I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. Without warning, Saddam Hussein revealed that he had over 70,000 troops on the Kuwait/Iraq border ready to invade.

While Kuwait had plenty of military hardware, they did not have enough troop strength to repel an invasion. And, it would take U.S. troops three days to arrive. We knew that if Iraq invaded before our troops arrived, our lives were at risk.

Since I was the notetaker for the embassy’s emergency meetings to respond to this threat, I saw first-hand how our embassy team fell apart under stress. We never believed Saddam would invade Kuwait a second time and therefore had no contingency plans. A resilient team, however, would have been innovative, collaborative, and able to respond despite the lack of planning and high stress. Instead, we were frighteningly inept.

Our ambassador made one major mistake that significantly eroded our team resilience. He communicated to embassy personnel that our country’s bilateral relationship with Kuwait was a higher priority than our safety and security.

For understandable foreign policy reasons, the ambassador did not want to give the impression that we were panicking and he instructed staff to maintain the status quo. Employees were told to send their children to school as usual and to keep their families in the country. The embassy community’s anxiety worsened as the ambassador spent much of his time with Kuwaiti officials and too little time meeting with and reassuring staff and families.

While Saddam did not invade, the result of putting policy before people was an angry and bitter embassy community with low morale and productivity.

In contrast, the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal’s actions after the 2015 earthquakes demonstrate the benefits of putting people first. When the first earthquake hit, the ambassador’s only priority was the safety of all embassy personnel. He focused on staff well-being, shifting towards the bilateral relationship with the government of Nepal only after he was confident that mission employees were okay. 

Despite the security and logistical challenges, the ambassador let every employee and their families move to the embassy compound since it was the safest place in the country. He allowed people to bring their pets knowing how much animals mean to people and how tragic it would have been to leave pets behind. The ambassador and other senior embassy leaders walked around the compound every day checking on people, listening to feedback, and making sure they were all right.

His actions sent the message that he cared about people and would overcome challenges when needed to protect them.

Knowing that they and their loved ones were valued and safe enabled the embassy staff to devote themselves entirely to assisting American citizens and the people and government of Nepal. As a result, the Nepalese view the United States as genuine partners, and private U.S. citizens praised embassy personnel for the quality of assistance they provided. Embassy employees were proud of the work they did, and after the crisis ended, most were healthy and unscarred.

It can be tempting to prioritize policy or profits over people. However, a lack of consideration for people (one of the 7Cs of team resilience) will inevitably erode the resilience of a team and risk mission failure. Instead, putting people first means that a resilient team will be able to achieve policy goals and earn profits because they are more capable and productive.

Do you have a story about a leader who did or did not put people first? If so, please share it in the comments.

I help individuals and teams thrive in adversity by providing practical skills and tools I developed over several decades as a U.S. diplomat in challenging environments. Visit my website to learn more about how I can help you and your team avoid burnout and become more innovative, collaborative, and productive despite overwhelming challenges, constant change, and chronic stress. Follow me on Twitter at @payneresilience.

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