While President Eisenhower’s legacy lives on for most of us in the form of the Interstate Highway System, all of his achievements must be measured against his performance as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the re-conquest of Europe from the Nazis during World War II. Any student of history appreciates the enormity of the undertaking that Eisenhower spearheaded, and the importance of his role as a strategist and symbol of leadership during the most trying moments of the 20th century. While the idea of a “mobilized” America may feel a little strange in the current age of a professional (and shrinking) armed forces, circumstances during WWII compelled the involvement of every segment of the American citizenry, with Eisenhower personally responsible for the combined war effort of the United States and its allies in the European theater. As a leader, particularly one charged with launching an unfathomably complicated assault against the Nazi war machine that had enslaved a continent, Eisenhower surely understood the importance of morale.
It is interesting, therefore, to consider Eisenhower’s feelings about the role of morale in an organization. While we may default to considering “team morale” as something that needs to be discussed, at least on occasion, General Ike felt very differently. In his words, “The best morale exist when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear a lot of talk about it, it’s usually lousy.” That’s an insightful take on the subject, from someone who knew full well the importance of morale in preserving the ability of an organization to function at its peak potential. While morale is important, however, Eisenhower also implicitly recognized two truths that are of interest to us as lawyers. First, morale is meaningless if the organization or firm does not have a mission. Second, firms who fret about “boosting morale” must understand that they already have a serious problem on their hands — because morale, depending on the mission and the organization, may actually present a zero-sum calculus, such that morale among the members of an organization may be good or bad — with no in-between.
It is much easier to appreciate the importance of morale operating in service of a broader “mission” at a small firm. At smaller firms, everything is “personal,” and it is extremely important that each member of the firm understands the firm’s mission and their role in making that mission a successful one. If morale is poor, for whatever reason, there is little doubt that the entire firm’s ability to execute on its mission will be compromised, at least until the reasons for the poor morale are addressed. In contrast, larger organizations can sometimes weather pockets of poor morale, because there is less likelihood that a problem in the Phoenix office’s real estate group will have much of an impact at all on the ability of the firm’s Chicago corporate attorneys to function effectively. If the source of the poor morale, however, is some type of existential concern, then it is unlikely that discussing the issues will be of much help anyway.
Just as poor morale in one group is less likely to have an impact on the performance of other groups in a large organization, so does the existence of good morale only extend so far. At a small firm, however, it is very apparent when morale is good, and it is much more likely that an esprit de corps will pervade the entire firm. At our firm, especially when business is humming along, there is little doubt that morale is good. When everyone is busy, and contributing, there is little need to discuss morale, or try and tinker with something that is working. Even when there are some challenges to overcome, morale can and does remain good, especially because we all have a common goal in mind, and a full understanding of our firm’s mission. That understanding helps smooth out any rough patches, and prevents discouragement or malaise from taking root.
But what if morale is bad for whatever reason? Small firms simply can’t survive very long in such circumstances. The tonic for poor morale? Leadership, for one. If there is a serious drain on the firm’s emotional well-being, something needs to change. Leadership is required to determine whether the problem is with the mission — which can be altered if destined for failure — or with the people executing on that mission. Likewise, every member of the organization needs to reaffirm their commitment to the mission, and actually take concrete steps to perform as best as they can — even in the face of poor morale.
As Eisenhower noted, what certainly won’t work to solve the problem of poor morale is a lot of discussion, since excessive discussion could actually lead to more harm. That is not to say that grievances contributing to the poor morale should not be aired, only that the firm’s leadership realize that it will take action, rather than just talking, to turn things around. Every business faces adversity, and there is no guarantee that the owners and employees will be able to steel themselves in the face of that adversity. Leaders understand the importance of morale and their role in building and sustaining it — just like Eisenhower did. We may not face the same challenges he did, or run as complex an organization, but we can still learn from his straight talk.