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Leaders with Swords: Low Cost, High Impact Recognition

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

1. Top performers need to know their efforts are valued and recognized.

2. Most organizations don’t effectively appreciate or recognize their people.

3. Money is not the most effective form of recognition.



How do you encourage people to grow into leaders? Years ago, the United States Marine Corps ran a TV commercial with a young man moving through a gauntlet and slaying a fire monster. He was then transformed into a Marine in his Dress Blue Uniform and pictured saluting with his sword. It was one of their most successful recruiting campaigns, and the one that caught my eye as a teenager. I enlisted shortly thereafter.

As an organization with literal life or death consequences based on the effectiveness of its leaders, the Marine Corps is full of traditions and ceremony. Why? It would seem that “training” and “achieving goals” would be far more important priorities of effort. But the Corps knows and values something that most organizations overlook: While effective leaders should constantly seek new methods of enabling their people to succeed in the modern age, all leaders crave a tie to the past and the leadership which helped them get to where they are now.


69% of employees would work harder if they felt their efforts were better appreciated.


New Corporals, or Non-Commissioned Officers, are the first real rank of “Leader”. This is where a Marine officially leads a team into combat. While there are several hallowed traditions and ceremonies that take place, one in particular holds a special place in the hearts of every Marine who has achieved that rank: The opportunity to carry and wield the NCO Sword. This is, of course, impractical in modern combat but serves many purposes, nonetheless. The sword is used in the conduct of drill, reinforcing the command presence and confidence of the leader. It serves during ceremonies, harkening back to a time of honor, camaraderie, physical courage, and Esprit de Corps. And it is a physical display of the responsibility and authority entrusted to the leader carrying it.

Every NCO is taught the extensive history of the sword, dating back to Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon in the early 1800’s, as well as every single aspect of its characteristics and nomenclature. They are drilled extensively on its use and employment during drill and ceremonies, to include non-military events, such as weddings. In essence, each leader is taught to revere the sword, its history, and the generations of men and women who have carried it before them.



Organizations today who appreciate and recognize their leaders (as well as all other employees) are significantly more successful than organizations who don’t. But most organizations don’t do this. Gallup found that only one in three employees report that they received any recognition in the past seven days, and that employees who do not feel appreciated are twice as likely to look for a new job within the next year. Our studies have reported that the self-reported number is even lower for leaders, since they are expected to be top-performers by their bosses. But it is the top performer who craves the recognition the most.

Public recognition is what has been reported by employees at all levels to be their most memorable form of recognition. While recognition from the CEO or executive member comes in at 24%, the public recognition of the immediate supervisor or manager reigns at first place with 28% of respondents stating it was the most memorable and meaningful. Here are five other interesting statistics on recognition:

  • 87% of recognition programs focus exclusively on tenure. (Bersin & Associates)

  • 69% of employees would work harder if they felt their efforts were better appreciated. (Socialcast)

  • 50% of employees believe being thanked by managers not only improved their relationship but also built trust with their leaders. (Cicero Group)

  • Companies with recognition programs that focus on employee engagement have 31% lower turnover. (Bersin & Associates)

  • Only 14% of organizations provide managers with the necessary tools for rewards and recognition. (Globoforce)



There is a big difference between appreciation and recognition. It’s possible to do one without the other, and that happens frequently in many organizations. For example, a leader may appreciate the efforts of an employee, but fail to recognize them even to the point of not saying, “Thank you for your hard work this week”. I’ve also seen leaders recognize employees, but it was obvious that there was no real appreciation behind it. For example, a $10 gift card with no letter or note casually left on an employee’s desk who has done great work for the company and is celebrating their five-year work anniversary. Do you really think that employee feels appreciated by their supervisor or the company leadership? Of course not.


“Appreciative leaders are appreciated leaders."


The best criteria for recognizing an employee’s efforts should be personalized and awarded by their immediate supervisor or CEO publicly and should align with the company’s culture and ideals. But there’s another benefit to doing this. Aside from communicating an obvious appreciation and providing motivation to the employee, the act of publicly recognizing their efforts sends a clear-cut message to everyone watching about what success looks like and what they should be aspiring to accomplish in their workday. This reinforces the desired ethos and culture of the organization with all employees.

There is one caution to all of this. When undeserving employees are rewarded at the same level as a top-performer, the top-performer will feel devalued. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t show appreciation for a mediocre employee who is performing at a mediocre level most days. But appreciation and recognition should always be commensurate with the effort and results achieved by each employee.



Here are the top six methods of recognizing an employee’s contributions to an organization as self-reported by respondents from a Gallup study:

  1. Public recognition or acknowledgment via an award, certificate or commendation.

  2. Private recognition from a boss, peer or customer.

  3. Receiving or obtaining a high level of achievement through evaluations or reviews.

  4. Promotion or increase in scope of work or responsibility to show trust.

  5. Monetary award such as a trip, prize or pay increase.

  6. Personal satisfaction or pride in work.

For additional low-cost, high-impact tools for leaders please visit

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