Can Your Employees Be Heroes Too?

Organizational CommitmentJohn L. Levitow would not have been described as a stellar military member in the late 1960s.  He had some problems in the military and would describe himself in interviews as, “Nothing but trouble (Levitow).”  However, on February 24, 1969, during an Air Force night mission over Vietnam, he sacrificed almost everything for the mission and his fellow workers.  His job was to assist in deploying magnesium flares over a combat area to provide two million candlepower illumination to the battlefield—once ignited, the flares burned at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit for about a minute.  While engaging the Viet Cong outside Long Binh Army Base, his AC-47 gunship was rocked as an 82-millimeter mortar shell exploded in their right wing.  As he was assisting members of the crew with their injuries after the explosion, he noticed a lit flare rolling amid cans containing 19,000 rounds of ammunition.  Riddled with over 40 shrapnel wounds, he grappled the burning magnesium flare to his body, dragged it to an open door in the plane, and threw it out moments before it exploded.  His act of selflessness earned him two-and-a-half months in the hospital before he returned to Vietnam to fly another 20 missions and the Medal of Honor (Air Force Link).  John Levitow’s story exists, along with thousands of others, in the annals of military history’s heroes.  Why is it that so many men and women rise to hero status in the military and why should that level of commitment be reserved for the military only?  Any employee can be a hero in any organization.

There is a fable about a chicken, a pig, and breakfast.  The fable shows that the chicken is fully dedicated to providing breakfast because she works hard to provide the eggs.  The pig; however, is fully committed to providing breakfast because he has to give his life to provide the bacon.  In a sense, the pig is breakfast’s hero, sacrificing his life for the mission—the ultimate in organizational commitment.  Throughout all the research currently available, you will find organizational commitment defined as a verb.  Wikipedia defines organizational commitment as, “The employee’s psychological attachment to the organization (Wikipedia).”  Works of Meyer and Allen further segregate organizational commitment into three components—affective, continuance, and normative (Meyer and Allen, p 11).  In “The Art of Winning Commitment,” Dick Richards states that there are four forms of commitment: 1) Political—commitment to something in order to gain something else, 2) Intellectual—commitment of the mind to a good idea, 3) Emotional—commitment that arises out of strong feelings, and 4) Spiritual—commitment to a higher purpose (Richards, p 12).  These definitions categorize the concept of organizational commitment in terms of predetermined definitions, but do little to explain what this type of commitment really is.  In fact, very little established work exists to pinpoint what organizational commitment actually is and, better yet, how to cultivate it in the workplace.  Research on the topic is found extremely sparse and very one-sided, following the opinions of few and then building upon these opinions.

For the purposes of this paper, organizational commitment is defined as a demonstration of dedication, loyalty, and sacrifice to an organization—a noun.  There are no varying types of organizational commitment, just varying levels—measurable levels.  Thus, organizational commitment itself is a measurable variable.  Different organizations normally solicit different levels of organizational commitment, the highest normally being of our public servants (military, police, and fire).  These workers willingly sacrifice their life and limb for their fellow man, the mission, and even an ideal, like freedom or democracy.  This level of commitment does not just happen; it takes an active involvement of the leader and follower.  Different organizations often desire different levels of commitment, but in all cases benefit from a worker that possesses it fully.  Strong employee-centric organizational commitment is valuable to any organization and can be developed in the employees of any organization.  Yes, any employee can be a hero in his or her own right.  First; however, we have to understand what organizational commitment is and why it can be so valuable.

Organizational commitment is a demonstration of three basic tenants: dedication, loyalty, and sacrifice to an organization, regardless of the organization’s type.  Dedicated means being devoted wholly and earnestly to the organization’s purpose, mission, and/or ideals.  Loyalty is being strict or thorough in the performance of one’s duty.  Sacrificing is the act of giving freely of one’s effort, time, and self to an organization.  There are three elements required for effective organizational commitment.  First, is, of course, the organization itself, second is leadership within the organization, and third is an employee or follower subordinate to the leader.  All organization’s followers possess some level of organizational commitment because they all have the three elements necessary.

Many authors would lead you to believe that preventing turnover is the reason organizational commitment is valuable.  In reality, turnover is just a symptom of low commitment within an organization—just one measurable outcome.  Organizational commitment is much more valuable to an organization.  Imagine the disgruntled employee in the organization that does not quit or are fired.  That disgruntled attitude could affect everything to include poor performance on the job, absenteeism, a lackadaisical attitude, theft, corruption, and even sabotage.  You might wish these employees would just leave, but instead they infect your organization with their discontent and let it breed like wildfire.  Now, take the alternative—the employee that is the inverse to the above.  Imagine if your employee was willing to sacrifice their very life for the mission of your company.  Unless you require this, you probably would not desire it, but why not work for that type of commitment in everyday operations regardless?  The employee that is fully committed to an organization will provide top performance, work overtime and off-duty hours without complaint, and possess a positive attitude that is not only a pleasure to work with, but motivates others around them.  Their level of trust within the organization sets new standards of internal ethics.  When looking at the two extremes, which employee would any organization want—probably the hero.

Therefore, organizational commitment is actually best defined as a measurable noun meaning a demonstration of dedication, loyalty, and sacrifice to an organization.  As a variable, it can sway to either end of the spectrum and greatly affect organizational efficiency and effectiveness.  The goal of organizations should be to influence employees toward the ultimate levels of commitment.  Therefore, we need to look at what influences organizational commitment.

Before we can encourage heroism—the highest level of organizational commitment—in our employees, we have to understand the existing factors that affect it.  The factors that influence organizational commitment are broad and diverse.  The focus of this point is to look strictly at the factors and not how they influence.  In the last point, we will discuss the potential impacts of the factors.  In many ways, we can look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Wikipedia) and we can categorize the factors important to the subject.  Just understanding the factors alone does not fully explain them—we also have to understand who or what provides them.  As discussed later in this paper, many researchers place the responsibility of organizational commitment squarely on the shoulders of the leader, when this is neither fair nor true.  It takes three elements—organization, employee, and leader—to influence organizational commitment.  The first two are crucial—you must have an organization to be committed to and you need to have a follower (employee) to be committed.  A leader may also be the follower, found in self-led organizations and positions.

Without an organization, there is nothing to be committed to, thus we highlight the organizational factors first.  By no means can we identify every single factor an organization provides or influences, but through this discussion, you will understand better the organization’s role in influencing all organizational behavior.  In regards to Maslow’s scale, the organization focuses mainly on some of the mid-tier needs like the “safety” needs of employment, health, and resources (leading to property) and the “belonging” needs of friendship and fitting in.  It is the organization itself that provides the means of employment and through those means, expected resources, which ultimately lead to property.  Organizations can provide means of health through prevention programs and health insurance programs.  Being part of an organization normally brings with it a level of belonging, normally through work friendships and just being part of an identifiable team.  In addition, an organization provides some of the basic factors of a mission or purpose, values or ideals, and goals.  The organization, in itself, provides the overall direction to the employee—which is normally translated by the leader, but understood by the follower.

The proverb goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  This is inherently true of all followers or employees.  The employee must be willing to be led and, in many cases, must be ready to be led.  Without some of the most basic needs fulfilled, the employee is not ready to move forward in commitment.  Thus, the employee themselves are generally responsible for all Maslow’s “physiological” needs, some “safety” needs like body and health, and the interpersonal “love/belonging” needs.  In addition, although a leader can encourage “esteem,” a follower must be able to attain it.  So, without these two—organization and employee—you will never obtain any level of organizational commitment.

A leader is an essential element of organizational commitment in a sense, more than as a presence.  The leader can be the same as the follower, as in self-led organizations.  The leader; however, has a direct influence over an employee’s “esteem” in the hierarchy—self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect—but in many ways the employee has to allow these things to occur; the leader cannot “force” these things upon the employee.  The leader can also be the follower, as in self-led organizations.  The factors that influence these needs tend to reside in the motivational tools of leadership.  Rewards and recognition, power, direction, training, empowerment, and challenge are some of the leader’s key factors in developing organizational commitment.  As said though, internally, an employee can develop their own internal motivations—self-led—such as developing their own power, seeking out training, and setting personal goals.  That said, the leader must exist as an influence, but not as a physical body; however, a physical leader provides another valuable element to the subject of organizational commitment.

The highest (hero)-level of needs is Maslow’s “self-actualization.”  This is the ultimate level of organizational commitment.  This is where employees literally sacrifice themselves for the good of the company, for an intrinsic value that seldom is explained.  In the “Art of Winning Commitment,” Richards refers to this as the spiritual form of commitment—commitment to a higher purpose (Richards, p 12).  This is where the organization, employee, and leader normally all work in concert to illicit the ultimate desired behavior.  However, to understand how an employee achieves this desired level of self-actualization, we need to examine how to influence the factors discussed so they can work in concert with one another.

Some researchers would lead their readers to believe that the existence of commitment in employees relies solely on leadership abilities, but Dick Richards has it right in his book when he says, “Leaders cannot lead without the commitment of others (Richards, p 11).”  Leaders can be great, providing their employees the proverbial “water,” but if the employees refuse to accept, or are not ready for the liquid nourishment of leadership, they will not drink from the trough.  Understanding how each element of the organizational commitment chain—organization, employee, and leader—is affected positively and negatively by the factors under their control, leaders have a better opportunity to influence high levels of organizational commitment in hopes of periods of self-actualization.

Have you ever sat on the sidelines of a sports game where your team was winning?  The thrill of being a part, even from the stands, of your team’s victory tends toward exhilarating.  Fans across the nation celebrate in fanatical fashion with title wins regardless of the level of competition, if they are part of that team.  In sports, just because we say we support them, we take on ownership in that team, yet we have no control whatsoever its operation.  The odd thing about supporting a team is that anyone can attach themselves to a winning team and suddenly claim it as their own—a term referred to as, “getting on the band wagon.”  So, what could be said about the organization in respect to organizational commitment?  Are these fans committed to their winning teams?  What happens if their team does not win…often many fans lose interest.  This is true of organizations—employees want to be part of winning organizations.  A losing organization may have employees, but they probably will not be as satisfied with their place in the organization and may only stick around for its fulfillment of their basic needs of safety and security and less of belonging.  Picture in your mind a “winning” organization; better yet, ask your employees what they think a “winning’ organization means.  Undoubtedly, one takes care of its employees with commensurate pay and benefits to the level of work completed.  Moreover, the business should be successful and respected in the field and community.  The factors can be rather broad, but the concept is simple…people want to be part of a winning team!

Given that you have a winning team, let’s look at the employees themselves.  Are they capable of enjoying being part of that winning team?  If employees are sleeping in their car because they don’t have a home, if they are having serious medical problems, or not getting enough sleep for whatever reason, some of their basic needs will prevent them from being a committed employee in the organization.  It is common sense that if employees’ minds are elsewhere, or their comfort and concentration level is low, they will focus their efforts on these levels, which prevents higher-level needs from being met.  Leaders do not control these issues…let me repeat that for emphasis; leaders have no “control” over these external issues to organizational commitment.  If employees’ basic needs, which are outside of the control of the organization or leader, are not being met, one cannot expect a high organizational commitment.  A good leader, who is in tune to the patterns and needs of his or her employees, might be able to assist that individual through support, advice, guidance, and assistance, but this ultimately falls to the follower to implement.  Too often, people are ready to place the blame for low organizational commitment on a leader, when the employee is not ready to be committed or is not happy with the losing organization.  However, if the organization is winning and the employee, in the infamous words from the movie, “Field of Dreams,” “If you build it, they will come.”

Leaders, working with employees that are happy about their organization—truly identify with the winning team—and are mentally and physically prepared, can be led to levels of rivaled heroism in any organization.  Leaders, or the act of internal leadership in the case of CEOs and self-led organizations (entrepreneurs), have the tools available to motivate employees beyond normal levels of organizational commitment to realize their full potential in self-actualization.  These tools are vast and vary in effectiveness from leader to leader; too vast to discuss in this paper.  The premise; however, is for the leader to determine what personally motivates each of employees.  These motivational drivers are what transform organizational followership into organizational ownership.  Once employees feel like the organization’s success and failure rests on their actions, they achieve the strongest levels of organizational commitment.  Although we might desire our people to maintain the highest level of commitment at all times, what really happens is once the culture is in place, people “rise” to levels of heroic commitment.  This is when the employees put aside their lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the company—self-actualization, or better known as heroism.

Technical Sergeant Israel Del Toro dedicated himself to the United States Air Force and his mission as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), directing tactical air strikes on targets as an embedded member of Special Forces.  For years he dedicated himself to the greatest air force in the world—the United States Air Force.  No one can contest that the current United States Air Force is not a “winning team.”  With a beautiful and devoted wife, new son, and recent promotion, Israel was prepared at all the Air Force could throw at him.  After his Humvee rolled over a pressure-plate explosive in 2005, setting it off, the heat of the ensuing blast and fire badly burned and disfigured him.  Regardless, today, TSgt Del Toro is desperate to stay in the Air Force and share his message to the world.  Although this fanatical devotion to the organization is not attributed to leadership (either external or internal), it is the goals and expectations placed upon him that have driven him to continue to fight (Winn, p 14).  This devotion should be the level of organizational commitment every organization strives for—regardless of their role.

Heroes are characters that, in the face of danger and adversity, from a position of weakness display courage and the will for self-sacrifice; that is, heroism, for some greater good (Wikipedia).  You will notice that nowhere in that definition does it say that they must be members of the military or some other public service-related organization.  They are “characters,” in essence, you and me.  If you “expect” your employees to rise to heroism in your company, if your organization represents the “greater good,” if the employees are ready, and if leadership provides the proper motivation, it will happen.  We do not have to have John Levitow or Israel Del Toro in our organization; the John and Jane Does are just as capable of rising to a level of self-sacrificing self-actualization for their company as any military member in history is.  The key is simply understanding that organizational commitment rises and falls as a variable, and that it is not a static determination into which we pigeonhole our employees.  Then, we need to understand the factors that affect the three elements of organizational commitment in the workplace and we need to know how, if possible, to set the stage through the manipulation of those factors.  Once set, when the face of adversity rises to challenge your employees they will rise to levels of courage fit for any hero on the battlefield of business.  Yes, any employee in any organization can be a hero!


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About johnrknotts
John Knotts is a results-oriented business professional leader, manager, and supervisor with experience from the military, small business, several nonprofits, and is currently a management consultant. Working out of the San Antonio, Texas, he retired from the Air Force in July 2008 and worked with Booz Allen Hamilton from the end of October 2008 to December 2011. Now he is a Strategic Business Adviser with USAA. John leads large and small strategic transformations and has extensive experience in the areas of change management, strategic planning, process improvement, strategic communication and marketing, strategic human capital and resource management, education and training, facilitation, organizational design and development, modeling and simulation, financial and budget analysis, activity based costing and management, quality management, competitive sourcing and privatization, leadership development, and business development.

3 Responses to Can Your Employees Be Heroes Too?

  1. Lisa Pietsch says:

    “The key is simply understanding that organizational commitment rises and falls as a variable, and that it is not a static determination into which we pigeonhole our employees.”

    Nailed it!

    • johnrknotts says:

      That spoke to you huh?

      • Lisa Pietsch says:

        Absolutely. The human element must be considered. In our plug-and-play culture, too many leaders forget the human element.
        “A good leader, who is in tune to the patterns and needs of his or her employees, might be able to assist that individual through support, advice, guidance, and assistance, but this ultimately falls to the follower to implement.”
        The right support, advice, guidance and assistance adds community to organizational culture and creates an environment where employees feel their needs are being considered and they are being empowered. This inspires great loyalty. It is a method that has served me well for years.

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