UpFront: Managers and Leaders
By Brian J. Hogan
Good managers are hard to find, and very valuable to every organization. A competent manager can bring order out of chaos, get all personnel moving in the same direction, and significantly reduce the waste associated with administration, sales, and production. But managers aren't leaders.
Managers can, as I noted above, get people moving in the same direction, but the manager doesn't pick the direction. In fact, a manager works with the situation he or she encounters, and tries to improve it. A plant manager who, with the help of his manufacturing engineers, implements lean on the floor, has made a major step toward improving operational efficiency and reducing waste of all types. If the product manufactured is not what customers want, however, successful, efficient management of the production, marketing, and sales effort won't benefit the company. Do you remember the Pontiac Aztek?
Every successful business needs first-class managers, but every business that intends to become and remain a success desperately needs leaders—which managers usually are not.
Leadership is a characteristic that is created by a person's integration of his or her experiences and education, and the innate or learned ability to accurately interpret what's happening in the world. Earning an MBA, which is a fine accomplishment, doesn't make someone a leader. Rising through the ranks and demonstrating basic competence in your work doesn't do it.
What one looks for in a leader is a person who consistently finds the right way forward—the person who makes the right choices when conditions are confusing, and who gets positive results even when the people working with him/her are not superstars. Success, whether great or small, follows the appearance of leadership. When someone is dropped into a lousy situation and it improves—perhaps significantly—you should suspect that person of possessing leadership skills.
There's a great deal of talk about the problems facing the domestic automobile manufacturers in the US—the famous Big Three. Newspapers talk about legacy costs, overcapacity, and financing questions as though these were in themselves the reasons for the challenges facing US auto manufacturing. Almost no one mentions leadership. But how did the Big Three find themselves in this stew? Who made the decisions that led to the legacy costs, overcapacity, and financing issues? Why were they made? Leaders lead, managers manage. US automotive manufacturing has many skilled managers, but leaders?
If the Big Three really want to find their way out of the situation they are in now, they will need leaders. Are the bureaucracies at Ford, GM, and Chrysler able to recognize leaders when they emerge? And do those bureaucracies nurture such people, or drive them out? Without true leaders, US automobile manufacturing is not going to prosper.
This article was first published in the September 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.