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Vol. 5, No. 4
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Take Care of Your People*

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2007 William A. Cohen, PhD


Back in the early 1960’s, Mark Peters was a star athlete and a fairly good student in high school, but he didn’t know quite what he wanted to do with his life. He thought that maybe he wanted to go to college, only not right away. A friend was joining the Army and persuaded Mark to join the Army too. The Army gave Mark aptitude and other tests. As a result, the Army encouraged him to apply for advanced training in electronics or missile technology after he graduated from basic training. However, Mark wanted to “experience life and see the world.” So, he volunteered for Special Forces . . . the “Green Berets.” He qualified as a paratrooper, studied the Vietnamese language and became a language specialist. In 1963 Mark was assigned to a Special Forces “A Team” in Vietnam.


Mark’s unit worked with Montagnard tribesmen. He liked his job, both because of the mission, and because of the Montagnards. His unit’s mission was to find and attack enemy Viet Cong guerrillas. Unlike the regular Army, the Special Forces operated just like the guerrillas they opposed. They taught the Montagnards the techniques of surprise, stealth, booby-traps, and ambush. They attacked the guerrillas on what was considered the enemy’s turf, and they were enormously effective. Much of their success was due to their students. The Montagnards were good fighters, had their families with them, and were 100% trustworthy. Peters’ team worked with several hundred, and not only led them in battle, but took responsibility for their feeding and the well-being of their families.


The Montagnard’s were a highly honorable people and they really impressed Mark and the other Green Beret advisors. If a Montagnard said he would stay with you, he meant it . . . to the death. So the Americans trusted the Montagnards, and the Montagnards trusted the Americans. Where Mark saw much American military and other aid wasted due to the corruption of some Vietnamese officials, Uncle Sam got his money’s worth with the Montagnards. The Viet Cong very much feared the Montagnards and their American “teachers.”


One month, American food and other aid promised for the Montagnards wasn’t given to the Green Berets. Instead, it was diverted to a corrupt Vietnamese government official who promised to distribute it to them himself. Of course, he did not. Peters’ team leader, a Warrant Officer, complained through his command channels immediately. Without this food, the Montagnards and their families would starve. He was told that nothing could be done. He was told to tell the Montagnards to feed themselves in the way they had before the Americans had come.


Instead, Peters’ team leader called his “A” team together. There were ten men on this team. “We are responsible for the Montagnards,” he told them. “They have fought with us faithfully and have always kept their word to us. However, I have been unsuccessful in getting the promised food for them. This has been given to “X,” who, as you know, is corrupt. This food is being guarded by several dozen of his troops who are considered part of Army of Vietnam. I propose to take the food tonight. Since this is an illegal operation, no one needs to come with me. I do not want casualties on either side, but it could happen. Who wants to come?”


Mark said that every man volunteered. And Mark’s team leader kept his promise. That evening, they distributed booze to the corrupt official’s troops. When they were drunk and asleep, the American’s escaped with enough sacks of rice and other foodstuffs to feed their several hundred charges. Then they returned and began firing into the air. This awakened the drunken troops of the corrupt official. They thought they had been attacked by Viet Cong troops and started firing wildly.  The Americans faded into the jungle. There were no casualties on either side.


Later, the official’s troops examined the stores and found that a significant portion was missing.  They suspected the Special Forces, but their commander was afraid to tell the corrupt official that he and his men had been duped. So, they blamed the theft of the food on the enemy and took credit for driving them off. Mark Peters appreciated the extent to which his team leader had gone to take care of the people who looked to him for leadership. He did not forget this battlefield lesson.


Mark Peters Takes Care of His Own People

Mark Peters left the army. He went to a small college in the mid-west and got a degree in engineering. He held a number of positions in different companies in industry. Eventually he was hired as director of operations by a company in Florida which sold fire alarm systems to large corporations. As director of operations, Mark was responsible for manufacturing and installing the company’s five product lines. A manager who reported to Mark headed every product line, and each manager supervised a group of workers. Four of his managers held degrees from universities. One engineer had come up from the ranks. His name was Irv. Mark found Irv to be extremely competent. If Mark wanted a difficult job done, he gave it to Irv. Mark considered Irv one of the best, if not the best, of his managers.


One day Mark sat down and reviewed the salaries of all of his employees. Mark was amazed to discover that even though Irv had the same responsibilities as his other managers, he was paid considerably less. Mark spoke with the vice president of finance. “Irv came up from the ranks of the workers,” the vice president told him. “He has a couple years of college, but no degree. Our salaries are based on a formula which weights a degree heavily.”


“Irv is one of my best managers,” said Mark. “Moreover he has the same responsibilities of the others. He deserves a comparable salary to the others because he earns it. We need to change the formula or make some kind of exception.”


“Irv has never complained,” answered the vice president. “I don’t see any reason for doing this. However, if you insist, it can’t be done all at once. Otherwise, the percentage increase would be too great. That’s against company policy, too and I won’t budge on it.”


Mark agreed that he would increase Irv’s salary by giving him special  raises periodically until his salary was compatible with the others. A few months later, it was the Christmas season. Mark received a memorandum from the president. In it the president asked for recommendations for the coming Christmas bonuses. Mark called the president. “Since I am new, I don’t know how this is done,” he told the president.  “I assume you assign each department a certain amount of money and then divide this pot up according to my input.”

“That’s correct, Mark,” responded the president. “The vice president of finance and I get together and may make minor adjustments, but basically we will use the percentages you recommend.”


Mark worked out percentages based on the contributions of each member of his department and sent them to the president. On the last day before the Christmas vacation, Mark received a large pile of sealed envelopes from the finance department with a note: “These are the bonuses for your department. Please distribute them.”


Mark called the president right away. “These envelopes are sealed,” he said. “Each recipient will assume that the bonus I hand them is what I intend. If anyone made an error, I won’t know about it. I would like permission to open these envelopes to ensure they are correct before I give them out.” The president told Mark to go ahead.

Mark called in his managers and told them to check the bonuses for their workers. He checked the bonus of each of his managers. All were as he intended. That is, all except for one. Irv, who Mark wanted to get a larger bonus because of his greater contributions, got far less than any other manager. Mark immediately called the president again and explained the problem. A few minutes later, the president called back. “We can’t give Irv a larger percentage because the bonus percentages are limited by base salary. Until Irv’s base salary is higher, the size of the bonus we  can give him is limited.”

“That is wrong,” said Mark. “I am in the process of raising his salary to make it equitable with the others. But by company policy I can’t do this all at once. However, to give him a bonus based on his salary, which is itself too low, and not based on performance is wrong. This is unfair. Moreover it sends the wrong message regarding his exceptional performance.”


“I’m sorry,” answered the president. “These questions are up to the vice president of finance. It’s his responsibility and his decision.”


“Boss,” said Mark, “if the company cannot give Irv more, I respect that, but I intend to give him an additional bonus out of my own pocket to make up the difference.”

Mark knew he was taking a big chance. The vice president of finance had been with the company for many years. Mark was a new manager. The president could fire him. Mark’s predecessor had been fired. However, Mark believed that taking care of his people was more important. It was what he saw on the battlefield, and Mark knew it was the right thing to do. There were several seconds of silence. Mark waited and said nothing. Then the president spoke. “Bring Irv’s bonus check to my office. It will be as you say.”


And so it was. No wonder Irv, Mark’s other managers and workers, and other employees and managers in the company respect and support Mark. When he asks his department to do “the impossible” in performance, time, or budget, they never fail him. They don’t fail him because he never fails them. Mark always takes care of his people. His future as a leader is assured.


Philip Bolte served in combat in armored vehicles in both Korea and Vietnam and retired from the Army as a Brigadier General. General Bolte puts it in way shared by many combat leaders: “Take care of your men and they will take care of you.”[i] Thomas Noel, who fought in Vietnam left the Army to assume a senior executive post in the Department of Energy where he was in charge of the strategic petroleum reserves. He then became president of a succession of companies. Tom Noel credits what he knows about leadership from General Creighton Abrams inspirational leadership in Vietnam. “Believe in your people and take care of them,” he says. “You are what your people are, no more, and no less.”[ii]


How Far Should You Go In Taking Care of Your People?  It’s Up to You!

How far should you go in taking care of your people? Fortunately, a civilian career does not normally require a leader to lay down his physical life for his people in order to take care of them. But, make no mistake. You must be willing to go to enormous lengths in taking care of your people if you really expect them to follow you to the same extent as a successful battle leader.


They say that Thomas Watson, who founded IBM and later instituted extensive programs in education, health care, and recreation for IBM employees was continually visiting his factories and spent hours talking to his employees. On one occasion, he told an employee, “If you have any problem at all, let me know.” Later, the employee came to New York and asked to see Watson. On being ushered in to Watson’s office, he told Watson that his younger brother had an incurable disease and he had been told he would not live long. Remembering Watson’s promise, he asked whether anything could be done that was beyond the medical resources of his small community. Watson had the man’s brother put in a top hospital under the care of a famous specialist. At this point, the employee began to feel a little guilty that perhaps he had overstepped Watson’s invitation and he began to apologize to Watson. But, Watson interrupted him. “When I said bring your problems to me, I meant exactly that.”[iii]


If You Want to Take Care of Your People, Do These Things

Normally, your duties will not require you to take care of your people to the extent that Watson did. However, the direction in which he pointed is on target. If you want to be a leader that takes care of your people, and every leader needs to do that, here is what you must do:

  • Be the Leader When Things Go Wrong –  don’t try to distant yourself when things go wrong – stay with your people and share the pain
  • Give Their Needs Priority – Take care of the needs of those who report to you before you take care of your own
  • Really Care – if you want to be a real leader, you’ve got to  really care about those you lead
  • Assume the Responsibility – As a leader, you are always responsible for anything and everything your organization does or fails to do, even when it is someone to whom you clearly delegated a job makes a mistakes or fails to do something. So take the responsibility and take punishment you deserve. Don’t try to put the blame on a subordinate, it is always your responsibility.
  • Share the Gain – when things go right, don’t take the credit for yourself – make sure others understand it was those who report to you that were the real heroes

If you are a real leader, you must take care of the people who report to you. If you take care of your people, they will perform to the maximum extent within their capabilities. They will go to extraordinary lengths to take care of you. If you fail to do this, you won’t be their leader for very long.

* Adapted from The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership by William A, Cohen (Marietta, Georgia: Longstreet Press, 1998)

[i] Bolte, Philip L., Letter to the author, September 4, 1993.

[ii] Noel, Thomas E. III, Telephone interview with the author, January 6, 1998.

[iii] Hay, Peter, The Book of Business Anecdotes (New York: Facts on File, 1988) p. 168.



 . . . people are only too glad to obey the man who they believe takes wiser thoughts for their interests than they themselves do.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        – Xenophon


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