W&WP February 2004


Is Your Leadership AWOL?

Leadership resulting in empowerment will leverage one of the greatest competitive advantages a company has: its employees.

By Tom Dossenbach


In times of uncertainty, no one would argue against the statement that leadership is indispensable at all levels in an organization. The question I would like you to ponder this month is: "What is the status of your leadership in your company?" Put another way, is your leadership such that others can experience it, or is it AWOL (absent without leave)?

It is true that not everyone is a leader and this may include you. However, I believe strongly that almost anyone can develop leadership skills or energize the skills they already have. I further believe that it is not a complicated process, as you will discover below.

Leadership vs. Management

"I'm not a manager so I am not in a leadership position!"

"Steve is the general manager and he is supposed to be our leader - it's not my job."

I've heard comments like this repeated many times during my career in the woodworking industry. Unfortunately, looking to others for leadership today has reached epidemic proportions in many companies. In addition, there is widespread confusion as to the difference between leadership and management. This is hindering the ability to compete in today's environment of globalization and is one of the reasons for major job losses in the furniture and woodworking industries during the past five years.

The traditional definitions of management refer to it as a process of "controlling." For example, a financial manager controls the deployment and use of the assets of the company, including money. A plant manager is the one who controls the deployment and use of the manufacturing resources of the company, including machinery, materials and labor. A manager uses his or her energies to manipulate or control the variables in their areas of responsibility to maximize the success of the company.

However, there is no requirement that leadership be exclusively linked directly to management.

Leadership, as I have stated before, is the ability to discern what is and what should be and then help bridge the gap so that others will achieve the end results desired. While at first this seems to be pointing to the chairman of the board, nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider first the fact that everyone in an organization has the ability to discern what the situation is in his or her area of responsibility. Myrtlewood Manufacturing's CNC router operator knows well what is going on in the machining department because she works there every day. The company's machining supervisor, Clarence, knows what the major challenges are in that department, as well. But it doesn't stop there.

Betty has been working in the panel department for five years and has ideas on how to increase the productivity of her router and in addition, she knows how to eliminate the materials handling damage to the panels coming down the conveyor to her workstation. Clarence knows why the cutting department is always falling behind. In like manner, you know what's going on around you and know some of the changes that need to be made in your area of responsibility.

All that is needed for Betty, Clarence and you to meet our definition of a leader, is for each of you to begin to bridge the gap between what is now and what should be. Simple, isn't it?

Position vs. Attitude

The first fact that we need to realize about leadership is that it is not a position due to a job description! A machine operator, a supervisor and you share one thing in common: You have leadership abilities and skills. Again, leadership is not a position but rather a decision to act or an attitude - your decision, your attitude!

If Betty chooses to keep her ideas within, no change will come at the CNC routers or it will not come until someone else sees the problem and chooses to do something about it. What can Betty do? She can energize her leadership by deciding to make others aware of the challenges she sees and her vision of what can be done to correct them and then help facilitate the changes necessary. That's leadership!

On the other hand, she can choose to do nothing and suppress her leadership qualities. Hopefully you can agree that leadership is a trait that you can embrace in order to bridge the gap between what you know is and what you think should be. You and I have this ability in common with Betty, Clarence, and every other person on the planet. It has absolutely nothing to do with our position or job, but rather the decisions we make.

But there is a hitch. Are Betty and Clarence encouraged and empowered to do something about their observations? Is the corporate environment such that this process is made easy, or is it such that these good ideas will be suppressed?

No Leadership Without Empowerment

It amazes me that so many companies are struggling to find a competitive advantage to enable them to compete with the Chinese or other low-cost manufacturers. Over and over again, the same theme is repeated: "We can't compete because of our high labor costs!"

It hasn't occurred to many companies that the very labor they are complaining about is the source of their competitive advantage. The experience and knowledge your employees have about the company and its products is far superior to their Chinese counterparts. Betty and Clarence know how to cut your costs! They know how to reduce all kinds of waste and have new product design ideas! In fact, you and your associates have so many ideas to make your company more competitive that it will take the reassignment of some managers to "control" the positive change that is there for the taking!

The sad fact of the matter is that very few manufacturers in our industry have embraced this notion. As a result, millions of dollars in waste flow down the competitive drain every day due to the lack of tapping the leadership abilities of our employees. Herein lies the demise of our industry!

Is Your Leadership AWOL?

Your leadership can be energized or it can be AWOL. The choice is yours. If you decide to keep your ideas to yourself, your leadership is definitely Absent With Out Leave! Your company needs you to be a leader along with every other member of your organization even if some of your associates do not yet recognize this.

If there is an unfortunate resistance in Myrtlewood Manufacturing to give Betty, Clarence and others this freedom of choice, they should themselves assume a leadership role in discussing this issue of suppression with management. As I mentioned above, managers are those who are by definition "controlling" and sometimes they can be wrong in their approaches.

It starts with you and your commitment to assume a leadership role in your company no matter what your position. No one else can make the decision to become a leader but you. Once you make the decision, others will follow and - with management's careful direction - your company can thrive.

No matter what your position and no matter what the status of your company, don't sit with your leadership AWOL.

If you are a manager, consider the benefits to your company if each and every member of your team - with your encouragement - were to become a leader in their own right!


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