Joseph Walden, CFPIM
May/June 2012, eSide Supply Management Vol. 5, No. 3
For one military and civilian supply chain executive, arrogant and mission-centric models of leadership were the wrong fit. Instead, he chose to "get on the ground" — and out of the office.
Recently, I was thinking about the different leadership roles I've been fortunate enough to hold in my military and civilian careers, over the course of five decades. In some of those roles, I thought I did a good job of leading — at the time. Looking back, maybe I wasn't as good as I thought.
Let me set the stage: I entered the U.S. Army's Quartermaster Corps (supply) in 1978 after graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in rural sociology. I chose the supply management profession because of the availability of assignment opportunities — not unlike today's supply chain career field. But, I stayed in supply management and logistics because I enjoyed what I was doing.
I didn't have a good example of leadership coming out of the Army Reserve Officers' Training Program. Had I emulated the model of leadership demonstrated by the officers assigned to instruct and serve as role models to the cadets, I have no doubt it would have fostered in me an arrogant approach to leading — one in which leaders forget about the people they're leading and focus instead on their own accomplishments. Another manifestation is an attitude that conveys, "I don't care how you do it, as long as you make me look good."
Later, during an assignment as a company commander, I once again tried to emulate the wrong leadership model for me, which had been demonstrated by the officers to whom I was reporting. It seemed to me that, because of their higher rank, it must be a good way to act and, ultimately, would lead to my getting promoted.
But, this style was one of little concern for the individual; rather, the focus was very much on simply getting the job done. Consequently, little thought was given to the people who were necessary to accomplish those jobs and missions.
These arrogant and mission-centric approaches to leadership were the wrong fit for my style of leadership. And, unfortunately, they're models that some supply chain professionals — both military and civilian -may be encouraged to emulate. As a result, many supply management executives have been conditioned to believe that a total focus on missions, with little or no emphasis on the people working for them, is what leadership looks like.
The truth is, no matter what industry and business we work in, we're all in the people business. And when people are involved, caring and engaged leaders are needed.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu tells us we must get on the ground to know what's going on. The same is true of leadership: Not only do we need to get on the ground, but we must also get out of the office to see the people we lead.
We don't lead organizations; we lead the people who make up those organizations. They're looking to us for examples of leadership. Unfortunately, all too often, employees see examples of what not to do instead.
As the leader of the U.S. Army's Supply Chain Process Improvement Program, I made it a point to heed Sun Tzu's advice. I routinely got out of the office to see as many operations as possible in action. In doing so, I learned why some operations were effective while others were lagging.
As the director of the Theater Distribution Center in Kuwait, I frequently got on a forklift to unload incoming trucks and load outbound trucks. As a result, I knew firsthand the impacts of the different environmental factors on the workers.
In that role, I also often put on coveralls and climbed under vehicles in the maintenance shops to watch the work being done, and occasionally did some maintenance myself. This allowed me to show novice workers the right way to do things.
Although I've observed some errant models of leadership early in my career, I've also had some awesome examples to emulate. These have more than compensated for some of the subpar examples.
In particular, I was fortunate enough to serve several times over the course of my military career with two excellent examples of leaders.
One of these individuals took the time to get to know all his employees individually, as well as what motivated each of them and what they really enjoyed doing when they weren't working. Another sat down with each of his subordinates to map out their futures, including what jobs they should have and the training and education they'd need to be successful in those roles.
What type of leadership example are you setting for others to emulate? The best way to teach others to lead is by setting the right example for the type of leadership you'd like them to adopt.
Regardless of where we fall in the supply chain hierarchy in our organizations, if each of us took the time to inspire and motivate one staff member a day through leadership modeling — by demonstrating concern, integrity and loyalty — the result would inevitably be highly motivated organizations made up of highly motivated employees.
Again, we're all in the people business. Therefore, our teams deserve leaders who provide purpose, direction and motivation while balancing employees, customer needs and improving their organizations.
When it's your turn to lead, get out of the office. Do some of the work yourself. Talk to your staff. In short, provide a model of leadership you'd like them to emulate. In the end, you've got to show — not tell — why you're leadership material.
Joseph Walden, CFPIM is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 34 years of supply management experience, as well as the author of three books on supply chain leadership. He is the director of the Supply Chain Leadership Institute and a lecturer on supply chain management and operations management at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. To reach this author, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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