Recent mergers in many industries remind me of a point that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower often made, “Generals move the pins on a map,” he would say, “but the front-line troops have to get the job done.”
And the key to the job is leadership, small-unit leadership, leadership of the most basic units or teams of an organization.
Without good leadership in front-line units ? the squad leaders and platoon commanders or their business counterparts, the supervisors and first-level managers ? organizations stumble, no matter how skillfully the pins are moved on the map.
Yet in bringing leadership programs to many businesses in a variety of industries during the past 20 plus years, I’ve seen many companies neglecting small-unit leadership.
Time and again, I have seen technologists promoted right off the lab bench to become team leaders; I’ve seen assembly workers promoted off the line to be supervisors; and salespeople made local managers and yet they were not helped in substantive ways with their leadership skills.
Instead, their employers were focusing on the pins and maps, the re-engineering, acquisitions and divestitures.
Sure, the stocks of those businesses got quick boosts, but I wonder how well-positioned the businesses are to achieve consistent earnings growth over the long haul without skilled, small-unit leadership.
Consistent earnings’ growth is linked to consistent top-line growth. Such growth rests on a tripod. One leg is strategy, the pins on the map; the other leg is resources; and the third leg is execution. Small-unit leadership is the execution leg.
So I submit that in the coming years, businesses will come to realize the importance of small-unit leadership to top-line growth and earnings’ growth.
In fact, the coming years will reveal an exciting new age in small-unit leadership. Businesses that champion such leadership will be tremendously competitive.
Here are a few ideas on how to make it happen.
First, the CEO and senior executives must recognize the vital importance of small-unit leadership. I’m not talking about their simply paying lip service but having instead a passionate conviction that small-unit leadership is indispensable to growth.
Senior executives must encourage small-unit leaders. Celebrate their achievements. Help them overcome their failures. Measure their leadership performance. Develop compensation that stimulates them to advance as leaders.
The Marine Corps, an organization with a robust tradition of small-unit leadership, has institutionalized high-level commitment to small-unit leaders. For instance, in chow lines in the field, the lowest ranking troops eat first, the highest ranking last.
(How might the cultures of some organizations start to be changed for the better if, for instance, its executives gave small-unit leaders parking perks, while they, the executives, took their chances in the main lot?)
Top leaders who demonstrate commitment to their small-unit leaders will have committed small-unit leaders.
Without top-down commitment, effective small-unit leadership will not flourish through the whole business but instead in relatively ineffective, scattered islands.
But top-level commitment, though necessary, is not sufficient. A passion for small-unit leadership should soak the entire culture of the organization. Everybody must catch the spirit of and contribute to maintaining a culture of small-unit leadership excellence.
The word culture comes from the Latin root meaning “to cultivate.” To grow small-unit leaders, everybody in the organization must cultivate them. Spot them early. Bring mentors into their lives. Set their expectations high, not only for themselves but for their colleagues and leaders above them. Encourage them to develop leadership in others.
A successful executive told me that his career was changed by a small-unit leader. At one time, the executive was a high school dropout working on the assembly line.
“During breaks,” he said, “I always had people gathered around me. I had this knack of getting them interested in what I had to say. One day, my supervisor told me something that changed my life. He said, ‘I’ve been watching you with people, and you’re a natural leader. With more education, you could go far.'”
The executive said, “Until then, I had never looked at myself as a leader. Suddenly, I had a vision in life. I was something I didn’t know I was: a leader. I finished high school, went to college, and came back here.
“That supervisor ‘s passion for leadership defined my career.. He was always spotting potential leaders and helping them become leaders. His teams consistently racked up the numbers because of his leadership. He had me understand that his level of leadership is tremendously important in our company.”
Finally, the business that is serious about small-unit leadership must systematically develop them through well-thought-out, comprehensive training programs.
In the coming New Age of Small-Unit Leadership, leadership development people will have extremely important roles to play. They will be seen as some of the most important leaders in the organization, since their interaction with small-unit leaders will be contributing directly to top-line growth, to having people get the job done where ever the generals place their pins in the map.
2005 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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