By Brian J. Hogan
One looks at our present times and wonders, do we have leaders, or mere poseurs in positions of authority? In too many companies, top management leads in the same way that an automobile’s front bumper leads the vehicle—it’s out there, but it really doesn’t do much.
In combat, officers are often at the forefront of the attack. That’s certainly leadership, but it’s hard to find an analogy to military leadership in the civilian world. In the military, leadership failure may mean death or severe injury for subordinates as well as the leader. In the civilian world, failed leadership results in layoffs (or pay cuts) for subordinates, and a golden parachute for the leader. That difference in consequences, I believe, makes transferring ideas on leadership between the two worlds difficult.
During good economic times, inept leaders are rather hard to recognize. Most companies bang along, earning a return that might be better under superior leadership, but that is, nonetheless, acceptable. In bad times, ineptly led groups crater, and leadership’s failures become impossible to ignore.
Perhaps one way to understand leadership is to ask what leaders should do when trouble is in the wind. Surely the first task of leadership is to live in the real world. After every economic downturn, analysts point out that there were obvious signs of distress in the market. It’s a leader’s job to observe those signs, and to react properly to them, despite criticism from people who believe that, this time, high tide and green grass will last forever.
While the day-to-day supervision of work is the task of management, the work of leaders involves, first, choosing a realistic path forward for the entire group, and, second, communicating that decision to all personnel, then winning their enthusiastic support. It seems evident that making such choices requires the leader to have a knowledge base applicable to the company and its operations—there must be more steak than sizzle in the leader’s office.
Leaders overcome resistance to change, including passive resistance, by demonstrating that their decisions are correct, even beneficial. Real leaders don’t seek to intimidate subordinates—nothing is easier, or more despicable, than bullying someone who is unable to fight back. Leaders in the world of commerce, which certainly includes manufacturing, possess the interpersonal skills necessary to communicate their ideas to all who are willing to listen and learn.
So a very short list of the skills of a leader must include realism, understanding of the company’s operations, and communications skills. Perhaps another element, likely the most important, is the ability to earn the trust of subordinates. That, we’d probably all agree, is gold. If it’s not present, all is lost.
This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.