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Leadership - The Catalyst That Transforms
This essay grew out of the request to develop a newsletter article at one of my employers (a chemical company -- hence the title). As it turned out it got too long to publish so it became a "handout" by the business unit manager of at least one division for his staff.
Leadership is an easily defined, yet elusive concept. One dictionary defines it as
Guidance or Direction. Leaders can be found everywhere. Some of you may not view yourselves as leaders until you look a bit deeper. Leaders are not always in charge or always in highly visible positions, nor are people in charge or people with high visibility always leaders. In my years and journeys through business and life, I have met a few great leaders, but the numbers seem oddly small. One of the best and most inspiring leaders I have met was just a regular guy. He was a farmer, but had spent a career in manufacturing. Dean lead people by instilling trust and encouraging creativity. Through his treatment of people they developed ownership of their processes and achieved extraordinary performance but it was from the heart not something he commanded.
People make things happen. This is an obvious truth but then why do so many managers in the business world engage in behavior that keep people from becoming passionate about their work? Why do so many teams of any description, and a company is a team as much as an NBA basketball franchise, exhibit behavior well below their potential? Leadership …. or the lack of it. Leadership is the catalyst that takes the ordinary and transforms it into something extraordinary. The lack of leadership can do just the reverse.
Where it begins
To really have true dedication and ownership for a task, your job, or your mission in life you must believe that what you are doing has value. Your paradigm, or point of view, plays a major role believing what you do has value. Many things ranging from your background, to how you are treated, influence this paradigm. You can internally develop a positive paradigm but external influences can take the most positive attitude and create apathy or even anger.
This belief in value can have a huge effect on how a person performs and the sacrifices they will make to support the vision and cause. I once worked for a paint manufacturing company that was founded by a great leader. He had retired due to health reasons but his legacy was passed on to nearly everybody that worked there. A corporate raider had acquired the company and business was in a downward spiral due to that involvement and was well beyond the control of the sales group. I, by chance, became involved with the operations side of the business and on my first day in this new job had to do one of many employee layoffs. I always tried to paint a true and accurate picture of the state of the business and even though things were bad the remaining group of employees always seemed to believe that what they did had value. They set production records when we did get an order and still maintained great quality and worked hard. One man, Silas, had over 40 years in the company and had a disabled wife. He still provided value to the company and we worked to make his schedule flexible. One day a young guy, Brian, one of the best production workers we had, stopped me on the shop floor. He said he knew another layoff was coming but if I would promise to not layoff Silas he would quit in his place. He said he could find another job but Silas would never get another job at his age. I cried.
This was one of my earliest first hand experiences with leadership that I consciously recognized. Somehow the original owner had fostered this culture in the people he had recruited and implicitly trained with his own leadership style and it perpetuated beyond his retirement. Brian was a leader. He knew his job had value but was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a fellow worker. I recognized what existed in the company, and Brian was a typical example, but I did not consciously understand how or why it worked at that point.
Trust and Playing Not to Lose
One of the most important traits of leadership is the ability to gain the trust of people. This trust is probably one of the most powerful elements of leadership. Trust allows people to operate in a circle of autonomy without fear. A team that is in fear or is apathetic is a nonproductive team. A team where trust is felt will take calculated but productive risks. You cannot make people trust, you must create a trustworthy system. This is where leaders must Talk the Talk but more importantly they must Walk the Walk. Not doing what you say is the easiest way to kill trust. People follow leaders out of personal choice and without the element of trust even the best, most inspiring, and coolest missions will fail because their hearts are not in the process.
Another company where I worked had a leader, the General Manager, who truly inspired trust. Dean clearly displayed leadership in the way he treated employees. He gave each employee a clearly defined area of autonomy in which to operate and even encouraged a bit of independent thinking. My group did many skunk works (back room un-official) projects and some became highlights of the plant tour. The team identified the problem, devised a plan, and took risks, but delivered some innovative results to the company that had real value. His style was consistent and you never felt worried that you would be punished for breaking un-written rules. We had many discussions regarding leadership, management styles, and how to create ownership in employees. He clearly showed he trusted each employee. With his leadership you could “play to win” instead of “playing to not lose”. This trust inspired calculated risk taking and helped everybody feel they were valuable to the company. He made sure other managers also followed this paradigm because he felt it was so important. His communications of goals was clear and he trusted each employee to work in their area and granted an appropriate degree of autonomy to accomplish the goals. The trust was clearly a two-way relationship.
Integrity goes hand in hand with building trust. People that show integrity by living to their promises, being truthful, and staying the course in the face of adversity are seen as leaders by those around them. It is very ironic that not having integrity could be called misleading.
Integrity is a primary ingredient in developing trust in a team. “Say what you will do then do what you say” … every time. I heard a story about a preacher that went to a store and bought an item and when he got in his car he noticed that the clerk charged him much less than the normal price for the item. The preacher returned to the store and showed the clerk the receipt and said, “it appears you accidentally charged me too little”. Much to his surprise the clerk said, “it was not a mistake … I did it on purpose”. The preacher was very much dismayed for a moment then the clerk added “I visited your church last Sunday and I wanted to see if you practiced what you preached”. You never know how integrity will affect even the most simple and seemingly un-important relationships.
Facilitator and Humility
Being a leader that believes they are just part of the team can have a very positive effect on how they are viewed as a leader. The effective leader should see themselves as the facilitator to the group. They are there to remove roadblocks and generally help the team achieve their goals. A degree of humility comes into play with this type of leadership … they are not better than any member just playing a different role. Those leaders that believe their position or title gives them the power to help the team sends a subtle or even overt message that they are “better” than the other members. This behavior ultimately leads to mistrust.
Change is everywhere and people that deal with change effectively practice many elements of leadership. True leadership looks at change and positively adapts to it without the need to be encouraged. Without leadership we want first to be motivated to change … pay me now and I will work harder tomorrow syndrome. Leadership provides the catalyst for a self-motivated view of dealing with change. You deal effectively with change because it is right not because somebody makes you. Having a forward vision is an important element in dealing with change and leaders always have a vision. If you have a view of the future you can better see how things fit in your changed world and adapt so you arrive where you want to be not just wind up some place by accident.
One very important principle in Zen is mastery through adaptation. When change comes if you are more malleable or flexible you can better adapt to the changes and still have at least some control in your environment. This is not the same as simply giving in but using the change in a positive way to achieve your own goals even if in an indirect manner.
Anger is a natural reaction to input by others that is viewed in a negative light. Everybody has opinions that may not be accepted by others. If you react with visible anger then the likely reaction is anger in return. The effective leader separates anger and action. The ability to separate this allows the reaction to become positive rather than negative. Leaders do get angry but it is how they handle their reaction that makes the difference. This also is an important element of Zen … “The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life”.
The ideal employee is one that seems to always get their objectives accomplished without any supervision. Why do some seem to be dedicated and others are not? Ownership is a powerful element that helps create this self-motivation and is intertwined with trust, value, and other elements of leadership. If a person can see the value in their work and operate in a sphere of trust they will likely work hard against their own internal standards that are frequently higher than those imposed by any reasonable supervisor.
So where or how does ownership enter the picture? It is a byproduct of everything done by the effective leader. You cannot make somebody take ownership. It is the natural outgrowth of feeling they are in a system where the leadership is worthy of being followed. True ownership comes from the heart. The company where Brian offered his job to save Silas had intense ownership throughout the ranks of employees and it even extended into the vendor relationships. Before things got so bad with the corporate raider, who had taken ownership of the parent company, we were in a flood. The building was submerged in 13 feet of water. Six employees stayed behind as the flood started, believing it would only be maybe 1-2 feet of water. We surmised that if we put the bottom file cabinet drawers and other critical equipment up a little higher we could save some valuable paperwork and equipment. Well as it turned out we were trapped in the building. From that point to the day we started manufacturing paint again, in only 7 days, we had hero after hero emerge.
It started with the kayak ride off the roof of the building by one of the salesmen returning from a sales trip. He went home, got his kayak, and braved some treacherous water to get us down. Everybody worked nearly 24 hours per day to get everything running again. The maintenance group ran temporary wires to the computer room on the second floor and then started rewiring the production equipment. The sales team setup an off site office and started calling customers. The label printing company met with the production management to create a plan of reprinting 100% of our can label inventory and started a 24-hour per day operation to have labels when we were ready to use them. With this coordinated and amazing effort we flipped the switch and started making paint in equipment that had been submerged in 13 feet of water only 7 days before. It was an effort that was not commanded but it just happened. Everybody had intense ownership of their part of the process and made it work in a time frame that seemed impossible. Even the vendors continued to help after the startup. The owner of the label printing company would personally deliver labels in the middle of the night as they came off the presses. I asked him why he was so dedicated and he said, “It is what you do for family”. We did not ask him to do it he just showed up.
Fun and Recognition
Fun is another element that grows out of teamwork and cooperation. After the big flood we had a Flood Party for the company. Each employee, every one, was presented with a swimming trophy by the management with a little story recognizing their contribution. The party let us release a little tension and get together as a group and the stories showed each had a valuable contribution to the recovery process. I still have my trophy.
Another element of fun is just having the autonomy to define and deliver projects that meet the vision. The many skunk works projects our team did were great fun and provided a very solid sense of accomplishment.
One of the most obvious reasons leadership fails is selfishness. Being selfish changes all of the motivations to be a good leader. Short-term gains to please the boss or make the budget are frequent causes of selfishness. Being selfish leads to a loss of integrity, which erodes trust, then without trust things collapse. The selfish person is saying, “I am more important than you”. This does not always translate to a WIN / LOSE point of view. The selfish person may not care if you lose so long as they win so sometimes it translates to a WIN / I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU deal. Either way it erodes the effectiveness of a leader or any other person for that matter.
Putting it all together
Most of the elements of good leadership seem to be just common sense but it takes setting aside some ego and making special effort to truly care about people to develop good leadership skills. Gaining trust through integrity and instilling the belief that what people are doing has value will go a long way toward becoming a good leader. Having a vision of the future will help create a feeling of purpose, but in the final analysis leaders must create a trustworthy system for people to feel true ownership and be self-motivated to achieve the extraordinary.
Everybody has the capability and desire to become a leader and by practicing these skills in their own area of influence can start the chain of creating other new leaders. If you work hard at developing these skills you will find amazing things can happen. Your team can win where you thought winning was not possible.
Mark Strickland - September 2002
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