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The Best Leader I Ever Met

business_110008020-012914-intby Doug Wilson, Featured Contributor

AS I PERUSE the myriad posts, articles and books detailing the characteristics of good or bad leaders (all claiming to have found the secret sauce), I am reminded of the best leader I ever met.

The Leader

He was unassuming in his presence. He was not a scholar of leadership theories or fads. His bookshelf was not filled with Jim Collins or Daniel Pink. (In fact the only thing I ever saw him read out side of plant and company information was the morning newspaper). There were no leadership course attendance certificates lining his wall. He did not use leadership jargon such as “BHAG”, leadership“onboarding” and “collaborative”. When you met him, there was not much that would strike you as distinctive or memorable. But the employees in his plant thought differently.

I was involved in a complexity reduction project in his plant located in a small city far away from any major metropolitan area. This plant was the major employer in the area. If residents did not get a job at the plant, they would probably end up working on a farm or in a feed store. As a result, the plant had first choice of available talent and, therefore, was under no pressure to treat people well. There was always a long line of people waiting to take any slot that became available.

As I started the complexity reduction project, the plant manager and I discussed the usual project details. Eventually the conversation turned to what the plant did and how they did it. I asked the plant manager to take me on a tour of the plant and walk me through the manufacturing process. (It is very interesting that many plant leaders do not understand their own operations at a detailed level).

The Wall of Fame

The plant manager told me he would be glad to take me on a tour. Before we started, however, he said we would begin by visiting the most important place in the plant. I told him that was great and asked him what that was. (My mind was already exploring the options of what that could be: Finance, HR, or the break room?). He surprised me by responding, “The wall of fame”.

When we left his office, I asked him where the wall of fame was located. He looked at me, smiled and said, “It is on the wall between the men and ladies restroom.” I later discerned this was a very calculated decision. He had carefully selected this location because he wanted every employee to see the wall every single day.

The first time I looked at the wall of fame I was struck with both its simplicity and its magnitude. It was not professionally done and a designer would probably have had a heart attack looking at the layout. The wall was covered with Polaroid snapshots. In each picture were one, two or several people. Most of them were hamming it up for the camera (smiles, thumbs up but a few shy looks). Underneath each picture was the same format: one or two handwritten lines with a date at the bottom. As I looked at the wall, the plant manager said, “These are the people who made us what we are today.” He explained that the wall commemorated completed initiatives that members of the plant had worked on. Each represented a change that had improved the plant in some way.

The Lessons Learned

I learned a lot about the plant manager by looking at that wall but I learned a lot more observing his behavior over the next few months. I observed a leader who:[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#D8D8D8″ end_color=”#D8D8D8″ border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

  • Had high standards for himself, others and the products manufactured in his plant. Mediocrity simply was not acceptable.
  • Really cared about all his staff, professionally and personally.
  • Never read a management book. He just believed in doing really good work and being fair and honest with all his employees, regardless of level.
  • Provided direction but allowed his staff the latitude to figure out the best way to make something work
  • Was not afraid to say, “No, that is not a priority or a good option”, but would always give an explanation as to why.
  • Gave his staff all the recognition for accomplishments. (He was not in one picture on the wall of fame).
  • Was so revered by his staff that he seldom ever gave negative feedback. A disappointed look for work that was not to the highest standard was enough to cause staff to go back and try again.
  • Created a leadership culture. He had high expectations for all managers in the plant and expected them to practice a “high emphasis on performance integrated with a high emphasis on people”. (The only time I ever saw him angry was when one of his supervisors mistreated an employee. That employee received a personal apology and the supervisor spent some time alone with the plant manager in his office. As far as I know that problem never occurred again).
  • Established a culture of execution. His staff believed that when they started something, they finished it. No one wanted to be part of a project that did not end up on the wall of fame.
  • Made an impression on the people he led. No one (including me) ever forgot his or her time with this strong but humble leader.[/message]

How was he able to achieve and sustain such leadership success? Because his actions were driven by a personal philosophy he believed in. He did not need leadership books or articles to tell him how to behave. He was not concerned with the latest leadership fads. He only asked himself, “If I believe in high quality work and in high quality treatment and involvement of people, what will I do in this situation?”

You don’t often see authenticity and integrity all rolled into one but in this very genuine leader I saw the difference between good and great.

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2 CONVERSATIONS

    • Thank you Florence. I am not sure if that is praise or flattery because I never feel I live up to those high standards, but thank you.

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