It’s Not Personal. It’s Business.

In Saving Private Ryan there is a beautiful scene set inside an abandoned church that Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad seek refuge in over night. In it, Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) discuss how many men died under Miller’s command:

Captain Miller: You see, when… when you end up killing one of your men, you see, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or ten others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command?

Sergeant Horvath: How many?

Captain Miller: Ninety-four. But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn’t it? Maybe even 20, right? Twenty times as many? And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you… that’s how you rationalise making the choice between the mission and the man.

Last week I dismissed a Cerebra employee for stealing, and it broke my heart.

It’s hard to spend 8 to 10 hours of ever weekday with just over 50 people and not give a damn about them. But some people become more than employees or colleagues – they’re extended family. We build on that notion; Cerebra’s culture of kinship and support is a big part of what makes it the place it is.

Fundamental to caring for people is knowing that they’re fallible. I like fallible people. Firstly, it makes them human. Secondly, if Cerebrans are failing then we’re learning.

There’s failing and then there’s deceit. Deceit is not cool. Deceit breaks trust, and trust is astonishingly hard to rebuild once broken. And this is where leadership becomes incredibly difficult – making a call between the mission and the ‘man’. I had to dismiss someone I care about deeply knowing that their failure was deceit (doing the same crappy thing over and over knowing full well it’s not ok).

I’m bothering to write about it because I believe leaders, more than ever, are required to walk a tightrope balancing emotion and practicality. Staff want more than a 9 to 5. They want more than a salary. They want to make a dent in the universe. Remember “work-life balance”? What a joke. Work and life are almost indistinguishable from each other. We take life to work, and we take work home. We’re never offline. As companies strive to learn to make a profit as a by-product of happy people, work environments are all about motivation and health and wellness and happiness. There’s a LOT of emotion in that. A LOT. Especially if you hire younger people – ‘millennials’ – who are acutely in tune with their own feelings and the feelings of others, and less motivated by material wealth.

With all that emotion in the mix and while constantly striving to create a ‘cool’ work environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the ‘mission’. It’s easy to forget that small, destructive actions can have enormous ramifications for the rest of the team if an example isn’t made. Sometimes I feel like our culture is an ornate, beautiful and intricate glass sculpture hanging from the office ceiling, ready to splinter into a million pieces if I put a foot wrong.

Leadership is getting the mix right. Leadership is balancing emotion and practicality. Leadership is choosing between the mission and the man. Or woman. Leadership is making the tough call when the mission comes before the man.

Leadership is hard.

That saying “it’s not personal, it’s business”… That’s bullshit. It’s all personal.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not Personal. It’s Business.”

  1. It definitely is all personal, I think the key from a leadership perspective is to instil a culture of responsibility and ownership, mutual benefit and reliance, that itself rejects destructive behaviour. If this is truly inherent in the culture of your company then leadership becomes easier as you are enacting the will of all who participate.

    On the other hand if you feel like you could shatter the company culture by simply putting a “foot wrong”, then it possibly is just fragile, ornate window dressing that isn’t aligned with either yourself or those around you. To my mind the biggest mistake you can make is believing culture is something you do, it has to be something you are, ‘cool’ is far less important than authentic.

  2. There is a great book entitled Leadership is an Art. I think it is just that, an art. However rules and lines are necessary for people within communities. Breaking them and crossing them has consequences dependant on the leaders. You took a leadership call for the community of Cerebrans

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