Leaders, not people

October 26, 2019

MANY companies boast, “Our best assets are our people.” With due respect, that’s not true. An organization’s best assets are its leaders. Get the right leaders and the right people follow.  

The story goes that the U.S. Navy Seals held a competition. Five teams were assembled, one leader was appointed for each team, and they went through a canoe paddling race. After three rounds, Canoe 1 was the consistent winner. Canoe 5 was the consistent loser; it was observed that its team was plagued with bickering and mis-coordination.

Then the organizers did something interesting. They swapped the team leaders between Canoes 1 and 5. Result? Canoe 1 began to lose while Canoe 5 became the winner. Conclusion? It’s not the people. It’s the leader.

So what kind of leaders should we have? Well, it is true that business leaders are well paid for results and responsibility. They are to meet organizational goals such as profitability, market share or customer satisfaction. The wider the leader’s scope, the bigger his compensation.

Thus, a machine operator is rewarded when he meets his production targets, such as making X widgets per day. But his boss, the factory manager, is paid more because his work affects overall corporate goals, such as driving cost competitiveness with an impact on the bottom line.

However, the higher responsibility of the leader is to be an example to his troops. Hitting the numbers is not enough. It is to model the core values of the organization. This is self-evident by the disgust we feel about, say, a department head who is very competent but also very unethical.

Leaders set the moral tone. For example, if he wants his men to be industrious and honest, he has to be industrious and honest himself. Demoralization happens when the leader fails to walk the talk. Therefore, it is not enough to have the title or the corner office. It is to bring out the best in others by personal example.

In fact, many companies cite their mission and vision statements, then core values. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? First, values. Then, mission and vision. Casting a vision of industry leadership (“to be the supplier of choice” and the like) without exemplifying the values (integrity, initiative and so on) is to invite short cuts with disastrous results. Think corporate scandals.

When you personify the values, the rest of the organization catches on and there is nothing to stop them from fulfilling the vision. By all means, be the go-to expert in your field. Deliver the goods. But most of all, know the positive values that the company stands for. Then be the standard by which others look up to.

I have found servant leadership to be the best model. A leader has to think of his people’s welfare before his own. Simon Sinek had a book where the title says it all: Leaders Eat Last. On a more practical case, a company sent a Division Head and his people on a field trip. Along the way, the shuttle broke down and everyone was stranded in the middle of nowhere. The company sent three smaller shuttles to pick them up. For the first and second shuttles, the people told the Head to get into the car. The Head stubbornly refused and insisted they go ahead. Only when the third shuttle arrived and there was finally room for him, the Head got in.  

Now that’s leadership!

Great news! My website www.nelsontdy.com is now on-line. Please visit it for more encouraging resources.