Undercover Boss

You don't have to be a sheep in order to become a shepherd, but it seems to me that only a shepherd who knows what it is like to be a sheep can truly be a good shepherd.

sheep grazing (photo credit: Amit Bar-Yosef)
sheep grazing
(photo credit: Amit Bar-Yosef)
Tzviki Tessler was already a senior and highly appreciated pilot when he joined my squadron, but besides meticulously studying the new helicopter, he chose to become the squadron’s gardener.
I approached him one morning as he was raking leaves, and told him that he could contribute in better ways, while fulfilling a job more befitting his rank and status.
Tzviki smiled and told me: “No job is beneath me. If I really want to learn and immerse myself here, this is what I should be doing now. There will be time for a whole lot later.”
This was the first of many lessons I learned from Tzviki, a remarkable person and outstanding officer, who later became one of the best squadron commanders we ever had.
I learned that a leader must have extensive understanding of the components of his organization in order to make wise decisions.
He has to know what he’s talking about. Even more important, he should win the confidence and trust of the people he intends to lead. Humility is an important quality, and can be demonstrated by simply talking to people at eye level and joining them in their routine tasks.
In the popular Undercover Boss television series, it is demonstrated that only when senior managers disguise themselves as entry level employees, do they fully understand the organization and people they lead.
“You don’t have to be a sheep in order to become a shepherd,” was a controversial statement made by former IDF chief of staff Lt.- Gen. Dan Halutz, answering those who questioned his qualification, as an Israel Air Force pilot, to command the entire army.
This is a basic managerial and leadership question.
It seems to me that only a shepherd who knows what it is like to be a sheep can truly be a good shepherd. This is not to say that a shepherd must have once been a sheep, or that a boss must have actually served in all positions in an organization, but it is definitely important to be familiarized with the hardships and challenges of the “shop floor.”
In the IDF, unlike some other militaries, everyone starts out as an enlisted soldier and only later can become an officer, by selection and training. The chief of the General Staff can always tell new recruits: “I was once a soldier just like you.”
In Ecclesiastes 6:9, Koheleth says: “Better is the seeing of the eyes than the roving of the soul.”
Most commentators explain this to mean that it is better to be happy with what you have than crave other things. But the literal Hebrew meaning, backed by Sforno’s interpretation, is: “Better is that which has been acquired by the senses” rather than by analysis and speculation.
The best way to fully comprehend the field you are responsible for is to experience it yourself.
This doesn’t only apply to leaders, but to all professionals.
I learned this during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, when I spent two weeks in the northern command, planning and controlling aerial missions into Lebanon.
After hearing hindsight analysis by people who hadn’t participated, I understood that only if you were there, could you fully understand the complexities we faced and the decisions we made. I made a note to always try to be where things were happening in order to see with my own eyes, and to take external analysis, insights and criticism with a grain of salt.
In 2002, while I served in the air force operations department, a team of enthusiastic Navy SEALs (“Shayetet”) came to my office.
They were planning a raid on a terrorist compound in the West Bank, and had their minds set on fast-roping from two Black Hawk helicopters, as they had done when taking over the Palestinian weapons ship, the Karine A, (operators slide down ropes, from hovering helicopters).
Their analysis showed that landing was not feasible due to many trees in the designated area, and air force intelligence concurred, calling it “marginally feasible.”
I was not convinced, so I asked my guests to wait, walked over to the imagery analysis facility, and asked to see the raw aerial footage. I spent 10 minutes scanning the area in stereoscopic view, and then doubled back to air force headquarters.
“Sorry,” I told my disappointed friends, “I know fast-rope is sexy, but it’s much easier, faster and safer to simply land.”
During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, while stationed at the International Coordination Center in Tel Aviv, I was facilitating the safe passage of foreign nationals out of Gaza. At around 2 a.m. one night, before an important phase, I told my boss: “Asa, there are too many ‘moving parts’ and sensitivities. I have to be there.”
Brig.-Gen. Avraham Asahel answered: “Go!”
It was worth it. Not only did my presence at the border crossing prove to be vital, but I now came to understand the issue better than 500 Power Point slides could ever describe.
We cannot presume to know about something without studying it firsthand.
“Have you read the Koran?” my friend Mike McGee asked me.
“Well, I read excerpts here and there,” I answered, trying not to appear ignorant. Mike looked at me in disbelief, and said: “You cannot deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and presume you understand the roots of it, if you haven’t read the Koran.”
So true.
Can people who have never visited Israel, really understand enough to establish a credible point of view? My answer, with all due respect, is no. You cannot fully grasp the depth, nuances and complexities of what’s going on here without seeing it and living it. After four decades in this country, I can’t say I fully understand it all, and I’m still learning new things every day.
This principle is relevant to any organization or business.
Exposing key employees to the origins and basics of their field can make a huge difference. Sending salespeople to the factory, even if it’s overseas, can allow them to witness firsthand the process, from raw materials to quality inspection, and will result in representation of the brand with a deeper understanding, commitment and passion. Their work will be based on knowledge and not quotation of baseless sales slogans.
If you want to really understand something, don’t only read about it – leave your office and go see for yourself. And most important, if you want to understand people – meet them and talk to them.The writer is a former IAF pilot, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and International Project Manager at CockpitRM.
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