In the 2008 film Hancock, Will Smith’s superhero character is advised by a public relations expert to go around telling people: “Good job!” I often think we should adopt this technique, especially when someone really does a good job.

When I retired from the IDF I was surprised to discover that I was feeling 20 years younger than my real age. Don’t ask me for my dietary habits or training methods. It was something else.

The organizational culture of hierarchical structure had kept me feeling “small” and not appreciated according to my age, experience and expertise.

Many times I had to fight to be considered an expert, a professional and someone to whom it was worth listening.

Assignment to positions and the process of selection for promotion were awfully painful. Immense pressure was exerted behind the scenes and the overall feeling was that the process was biased and unfair. Even though “transparency” was always declared, I never really knew what was going on.

But it was the little things that got to me the most.

I rarely got feedback regarding papers that I wrote, even when they were approved and adopted as policy. When I wrote an email to a general, I usually received a short response such as “noted.”

My successes were attributed to my boss but my failures were easily traced right back to me.

I wanted someone to tell me: “Good job!” I must point out that my direct commanders usually showed recognition and appreciation. The problem was with senior leadership.

We tend to think that Israelis are very informal. There is little, if any, “distance” between the ranks and we call our superiors by their first names.

We perceive other cultures as very formal and “square,” but surprisingly I see more and more informal interaction between the ranks in the US military and certainly much more feedback, appreciation and praise for a job well done.

It’s not all black and white.

I think the IDF is an extraordinary organization with amazing people and a proud legacy. Although I’m criticizing some of the leadership models I have experienced, we also have many outstanding leaders. I had the honor of serving under, following and learning from many of them.

But, as a pilot, I was taught not to deal with the good, but to focus on the bad and try to make it better.

An important question must be asked: If I felt so unappreciated, why did I work so hard? What motivated me? The answer is that I didn’t work for my boss. I served my country. I did it because it was important. Because I felt I was part of a national, historic mission.

A follow-up question must be this: If lack of feedback and recognition didn’t affect my productivity, what’s the problem? The answer is that it did affect my productivity. We should not underestimate the direct impact as well as secondary ripple effects such as forwarding the aggressive approach down the chain of command.

We are not leading well.

We should abandon the authoritative leadership model that uses obedience and harshness to push people in order to make them follow. Instead, we should promote an inspirational leadership model that uses personal example, partnership and unity of purpose to motivate people.

I don’t think anybody is doing it on purpose. We are victims of circumstance, culture and education.

We cannot deal with only one aspect and expect change. There are many cultural factors that influence leadership and how people feel. Here are some examples:

• We are overwhelmed with assignments and under too much pressure. Leaders simply don’t have time to be nice. Meetings in Israel usually start late and their format isn’t upheld, so there’s no time for people to express themselves.

• An American general may refer a question to one of his colonels instead of answering it himself, explaining that the officer is more of an expert on this subject. An Israeli general doing the same will risk being disrespected by his subordinates who will think he simply doesn’t know the answer.

• In the IDF, some commanders think that they must be the most professional in their unit. This is sometimes the case, since most officers started out as privates, but I believe leaders should emphasize that they are not the smartest or the best in everything and that they can rely on subordinates who have more expertise in certain matters.

• The IDF’s modesty in awarding decorations and adorning insignia is related to our parsimony in commending and recognizing people for their hard work.

Now, I have a confession to make. I was a terrible leader until I was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 2005.

I was results-oriented, very strict, pedantic, and I had no patience for mediocrity. I related to my soldiers as if they were parts in a machine and acted as if the harder I drove them, the more results I would get.

I was wrong.

I was complaining about my bosses, but making the same mistakes with my subordinates. I craved recognition, but rarely gave it to my people.

Fortunately, I recognized this and worked very hard to change. I started focusing on people, not only results. For the first time in my career, I accepted the fact that not everything is perfect. I learned to delegate responsibility.

I found that relating to my people personally resulted in boosting their satisfaction, commitment and accomplishments.

I found that compliments have a positive effect.

I became a better leader. It didn’t come naturally to me and it has been a constant struggle. I still wasn’t an easy boss, but my people were more satisfied, they enjoyed their jobs and they felt important.

I believe the key to success is first identifying the problem and then initiating long-term processes, on a wide spectrum of issues.

The first step can be small, but it signifies a giant leap: Tell your subordinates, “You are professionals; I respect you; you are important to the organization and you make a difference.”

Tell them: “Good job!”

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd., which focuses on bridging cultural gaps in international cooperation.


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