The One Thing Successful Leaders Have in Common

It’s the difference between high-retention and high-turnover

Kathryn Wells
Aug 3, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

We all have the potential to be great leaders. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a multimillion dollar company, deliver mail, run a cafe, or are a stay at home parent. You have the potential to lead in your own unique way.

And yet in spite of all the potential we have to do things differently, the world continues to be off balance. Far too many managers and far too few leaders.

Sadly, many people lack the self awareness to be able to see that what they proudly call leadership is in fact management. That’s why our cities and towns are full of poorly run organisations and businesses that are packed to the rafters with unhappy employees.

What’s even sadder is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Those high up the ladder in organisations with poor workplace cultures have a similar way of looking at things. They think that certain employees are the problem and if they could just sort those people out, the problem would go away.

So what do they do? They focus on those individuals. They isolate the issues as being within those people and label them as being ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. They discipline them or perhaps even performance manage them out of the organisation and yet regardless of whether those people stay or go, they find the problems continue.


Because, with the exception of rare cases, the people are not the problem. They’re merely symptoms of a sick system and until we heal our systems the same issues will continue to repeat.

While they may still be few and far between, there are organisations who get this, which is why they stand out head and shoulders above all the others.

They’re highly effective and their employees are highly engaged. They don’t have massive annual turnovers of staff, instead people want to come to work.

What are they doing differently?

The leaders in these organisations understand one very simple thing — you can care for your employees all you like but if you don’t care about them then you’ll never have a happy and productive workforce.

Cared for vs cared about

What separates out those who lead from those who simply manage is that the former doesn’t just care for those above and below them, they also care about them.

Many people think those two things are the same, they’re not. Let me give you an example.

I’ve spent the past six years working for an organisation that specialises in providing end of life care and support to patients and their families. They do an outstanding job. Most people who pass through our doors can’t say enough wonderful things about the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual care that they receive while using our services.

Can you sense there’s a but coming?

BUT…this organisations culture is another story. While the patients and families are happy, the staff? Not so much. As employees we get a more than generous annual leave allowance, an off the charts generous sick leave policy and there are always discussions about how our physical wellbeing could be improved with cycle to work schemes and weekly on-site fitness classes.

And yet people frequently feel angry and resentful.


I’ve observed the goings on within the organisation more and more closely as time has gone on and I’ve noticed something interesting.

While the organisation certainly cares for those who work there, it hasn’t done a great job of caring about them, which is why the culture never gets to where they want it to be.

Caring for those who work for you involves many of the things mentioned above. Being generous with giving time away from work, considering the physical and mental wellbeing of employees by offering access to fitness classes and counselling, and supporting people through times of illness by giving paid sick leave.

But, see here’s the thing. People would happily trade in some of those benefits to feel that those they work for, and with, care about who they are as individuals.

Caring for people is a technical activity, caring about them is a relational one. And that’s a very key difference.

Moving from the technical to the relational

Successful leaders know that caring for their employees in a purely technical way, is not enough. They know that they also need to care about them in a relational way.

You can care for people as much as you want but if they don’t feel cared about then you’ll continue to go around in circles wondering why nothing ever changes.

I imagine it’s more than a little frustrating for organisations. They think that by giving their staff all these benefits they’re doing the right thing and of course, they are. But having all these benefits is only wonderful if organisations aren’t using them as way of absolving themselves of the responsibility they also have to care about those who work for them.

So what does caring about people even look like?

For me, it’s about courage. It’s having the courage to front up and engage with situations and emotions that make us uncomfortable. It’s finding the time to sit with our colleagues and listen to what it is they’re saying. It’s about being with people in their pain and suffering. It’s about having the courage to own our mistakes and to take the time to connect, one human being to another.

Now, lots of people say they can’t afford to do that, that there isn’t the time. To that I say, can you afford not to?

Franklin D. Roosevelt found the time to learn the name of every single one of his employees. Not only did he know their names but he also knew what was going on in their lives. If a former president had the time to do that, then so do the rest of us.

Besides, recruiting new employees and training them up takes a lot more time than retaining the ones you already have.

Nothing in our workplaces will change until we do and it starts at the top. Leaders must strike a balance between caring for their employees and caring about them. It is the only way our systems will ever change.

If you’ve made it this far then it’s clear to me that you’re either already a leader or you have the potential to be one.

I’m not saying that choosing to care about people as well as for them is the easy solution to the problem of our less than ideal workplace cultures but it is the simple one.

Organisations don’t need to keep performance managing people out the door or hiring expensive consultants. That’s making things more complicated than they need to be. But that’s what they’re choosing to keep doing.

They choose the complicated strategy that’s easier to implement instead of the simple solution that’s more challenging to live on a day by day basis.

Caring about people will always be the harder road to take than choosing to focus solely on caring for them because humans are complex and wading into the mess of it all brings us face to face with the things we’d rather avoid, both in others and in ourselves.

But while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it’s the only way and great leaders know that.

Our organisations will slowly be changed by those people who have the courage to do what is right not what is easy.

I have a feeling you might be one of those people.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this piece, especially your own experiences, so please share these in the comments.

The Courage Classroom

Unlocking the strength to live, love and lead with courage

Kathryn Wells

Written by

Lover of peanut butter, chocolate and the written word. Figuring life out one puzzle piece at a time.

The Courage Classroom

The Courage Classroom features pieces that explore how we can live, love and lead with courage.

Kathryn Wells

Written by

Lover of peanut butter, chocolate and the written word. Figuring life out one puzzle piece at a time.

The Courage Classroom

The Courage Classroom features pieces that explore how we can live, love and lead with courage.

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