An empathic leadership approach is especially essential, says a retired military leader, when stakes are high.
After a decade or so of successful field work for the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Samuel Worth traded the streets for a desk job — a standard climb-the-ladder move in many organizations.
Worth took on his leadership roles with little actual management experience. But over the next 20 years or so, working his way up to deputy director of the NCIS, he learned a valuable lesson. It came, in large part, from daily chats with an unusual source: the office custodian. That lesson? A culture of trust from the top in any organization has to come from deeds, not mere words.
The advice stems from Worth’s daily check-in walks around the office. That’s when he spent 15-20 minutes in the morning and 15-20 minutes in the afternoon getting to know his team beyond their NCIS positions. This, says Worth, helped the team see the humanity in their boss and allowed him to see employees’ worth as more than government agents. “When people are trusted, valued and respected at all levels, your operational endgame can be achieved and you will hit success,” says Worth.
Worth spoke about his career on a recent webinar entitled Senior Leader Perspectives on Refining Your Leadership Approach, presented by Pasco County-based St. Leo University. Worth says chatting regularly with the office floor custodian made an even bigger impact than his walkabouts. This was someone, Worth says, who “probably knew more about what was going on around an office than most of the people who worked in (the) office.”
Worth says he gained a friend in those chats, and, in doing so, he led the team to start coming out of their silos. Soon, he says, there was a “group of people who started to value everyone in the organization, not just the people in their own cluster or their own section of the building.”
“And then next thing you know,” he adds, “we had a climate of trust and we had an organizational culture of treating people with respect, dignity and humanity at every level. And the reason that’s important is sometimes as a leader you are going to have to make tough decisions. And as a leader when they see the humanity in you and you see the humanity in them, they are going to get a better understanding of where your decisions come from.”
‘Remaining concise and clear and convincing when you communicate is critical. No one likes a blowhard. No one likes a lecture.’ Samuel Worth, U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service
Worth’s presentation was a partnership between F1RST, Florida’s Forensics Institute for Research Security & Tactics, an enterprise of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, and the St. Leo Department of Public Safety Administration and its criminal justice program. Worth retired from the NCIS in August 2018 after 29 years with the agency. Now a law enforcement and counterintelligence consultant, he served in a variety of assignments and mission areas both in the United States and overseas, including the Middle East and Pacific Operations.
A core part of Worth’s presentation were his five Cs of leadership: communication, confidence, credibility, consistency and calm. Insights into each principle include:
• Communication: Worth calls the ability to articulate “what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and why it needs to be done… the absolute (most) critical leadership characteristic of all.”
“I’ve seen the most energetic people, the most inspirational people, fail at leadership,” he adds, “because they fail to communicate effectively with their workforce or with their supervisors or with their stakeholders.”
One caveat: good communication doesn’t mean being long-winded. “Remaining concise and clear and convincing when you communicate is critical,” he says. “No one likes a blowhard. No one likes a lecture.”
• Confidence: A confident workforce can help build competence in a variety of areas, Worth says. “You don’t need to be a rah-rah type leader and you don’t to have rousing speeches,” he says. “But when your people know how to do the job and know how to do it right, and they do it with confidence, you are going to be better than anyone else, and your leadership will be a lot easier at that point, because your people know they can do it and they actually do it very well.”
• Credibility: A lack of credibility from leaders is the fastest way to see things go south, says Worth. To maintain credibility, he suggests a leader should avoid dictating orders, patronizing the team or overhyping success. “Anytime a leader displays a lack of credibility it chips away and erodes (trust) and creates fissures that split major fault lines,” he says. “It is nearly impossible to get your workforce back or to reestablish a culture of trust when the leader displays a lack of credibility.”
• Consistency: The team a leader oversees performs better, Worth says, when the expectations are clear (see communication) and the rules don’t change without warning. “Consistency builds trust and reduces anxiety and confusion,” he says. “Consistency is critical because your people will start to anticipate the way you will think, and they will surprise you with how well prepared they are going to be, especially if it's a crisis situation.”
Calm: More than a platitude, Worth says remaining calm is a key component of strong leadership. “You don't want your people to dread having to go into battle,” he says, “or face a tough situation or a tough decision… if you don't consistently remain calm.”
During his leadership tenure at NCIS, Worth sometimes heard criticism that his leadership style was too “touchy-feely” for law enforcement, especially the emphasis on a positive, respectful culture. That question came up on the Zoom call, too.
“There have been people who have told me,” Worth says, “close associates and other leaders, who have said ‘look boss, you know this is too touchy feely. We're law enforcement federal agents. We're not here for a group hug and I don't really care about the emotions of my people if we have to take that hill or we have to serve this warrant.’”
While Worth points out he’s a mission-first leader, he also looks at leadership of high-performing teams as a long game — not a one-off arrest or case. Worth says in the early part of his supervisory career one of his agents committed suicide. Another agent, many years later, told Worth he had thought about suicide partly due to a toxic work culture. Those were two key moments of validation for Worth, when he knew he was onto something with an empathetic, strong-culture leadership approach.
“If someone wants to say it’s dumb or it’s too positive that’s their opinion,” Worth says. “But I could tell you the results spoke for themselves. I didn't have to speak because as we changed the culture in different parts of the organization or different offices, the results speak for themselves. We had less problems and more productivity.”