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Being There – A Leadership Practice

Factory Worker

“If you want to go fast, go alone. But, if you want to go far, go together” – African proverb

In our journey toward Sustainable Wealth Creation, we need to adopt some practices that distinguish true leaders from managers. Leadership is an exercise of the heart, management is an exercise of the head. Both are imperative.

Like many who attend prestigious business schools, I started out with the head. “Management stuff” studied in my MBA curriculum was easy for me. I could do the decision trees, analyze the cases, evaluate the financial statements and design the optimal compensation plan with the best of them. It took a rude awakening, however, to learn the leadership part.

I was the shift leader for about 30 production personnel in an operating department and I was great. I knew exactly what needed to be done to organize the work efficiently and effectively for optimal performance. I assessed the skills of my team, improved the processes, installed improved metrics and performance management systems. The KPIs were trending up and I thought things were going great.

Then one day, my boss pulled me aside for a private chat. He was quite the talker, and none of our periodic discussions was finished quickly. Usually I was anxiously watching the clock on his office wall, imagining all the crises happening on the shop floor while I waited for a convenient chance to go attend to the chaos.

On this day, however, the subject was direct and brief. “Bryan”, he said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you are cut out for this job.” I was floored. Me!? The one with the fancy degrees from the fancy schools? The one who was improving the performance of the department and had the data to back it up? How could this be?

To be honest, I did not believe him that day. I walked away from that conversation convinced he was wrong and determined to prove it. Over time, however, I learned that he was right.

You see, there is something more to leading a group of people than efficiency – what you can get out of them. As a rational B-school student I had learned how to maximize the efficiency of people and processes and I was good at it. But what I did not consider was the impact on the people themselves. They knew I appreciated what they did to contribute to our shared department goals. What they did not know was that I appreciated them – who they were as people.

A machine breaks, and the operator calls me on the portable radio. I come and see the problem and call a mechanic. The mechanic comes and I leave – what is the point in me being around? I can’t fix the machine, he can! It is inefficient for me to waste my time watching the mechanic fix the machine, he will call me when he is done and I can most effectively use my time doing something else.

But from a leadership perspective, this is a failure! Such an approach is efficient but damaging to trust and relationships. The operator wants me there to be there, to enter into her experience that she like me wants the machine to be running and productively producing product, but she cannot because it is not. She wants me to share her frustration and be with her to overcome the issue. When I leave her alone with the mechanic, trust erodes and her desire to achieve my objectives is reduced. “Why should I care about whether or not the machine is running right now when my boss doesn’t seem to care?”

Usually I select only one quote, but this time I picked a second because I could not choose which better to illustrate my point:

“A community is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other…”

- Wendell Berry

You see, there is such a thing as short-term efficiency which erodes the long term sense of trust and community in an organization. It is difficult to measure and even more difficult to build, but it is easy to destroy by acting like you just don’t care about the problems others have in exceeding a shared performance objective. It is easy to destroy by acting like the manager rather than acting like the leader who enters into the pain of his associates to support them in their difficult times.

As the first quote above makes clear, the path of management is the path of short-term gain and long-term failure. This is the path I was on those decades ago as a production supervisor when my manager tried to coach me. I wish I would have learned the lesson then. I would like to think I have learned it by now, and often I do get it right. But still at times the when pressure is on I find it all too easy to take the quick and easy path to management efficiency that goes fast and sacrifice the long-term bonds of trust so critical to an organization that will go far.

How about you, where do you need to “Be There” for your team? What steps will you take to do so this week? Share your ideas by comment to this post.

 

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