When you think of your title, how do you see yourself? Are you a leader, or are you the boss, supervisor, manager, director, general manager, vice president or president of a group of people?
There are hundreds of definitions of leadership and management. When we ask our clients, “What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?”, we get responses such as, “A leader has a vision, and the manager acts on the leader’s vision.” Or, “Leaders are focused on people and managers are focused on tasks.” For over twenty years now, we have strongly stood by our answer to the above question. Supervisors, managers, directors, vice presidents and CEOs all have a title and a place on the organizational chart that gives them permission to tell a group of people what needs to be done. A leader may or may not have a title, but they always build relationships where people make a conscious decision to follow them.
When did you realize you went from being just a boss, to an actual leader?
For me, it happened in 1985. Between 1981 and 1990, I co-owned Photomation West, a commercial printing company. We had 17 employees and specialized in printing high-quality brochures and fliers. I was 27 years old and because I had no technical expertise in printing, everyone on the operational side of the business had very little respect for me. To be blunt, no one listened to me and seldom did people do what I asked them to do, even though I was the owner. If I wanted something done, I had to go ask my business partner, Paul, to go tell the people in operations what I needed them to do. My area of expertise was in sales, marketing, developing and bringing new clients into our company.
My moment of enlightenment came one rainy day in March, 1985 when I went to the back of the shop and told Frank, our lead Heidleberg pressman, what job I wanted him to run first that day. This was a simple request coming from the person who owned the Company. When I went to the back of the shop two hours later, I found out that Frank had his own priorities for the day and was printing a different job. I was livid. I stormed off to Paul with one goal…fire Frank.
Paul is a wise man who always did the right thing when it came to leadership. Paul stopped me and asked, “Before we go fire Frank, who is the best Heidlberg pressman we have ever had?” (Let it be known, this man could print better drunk than anyone else could sober.) He added, “Consider a few questions: Have you ever asked Frank for his opinion about the order in which to run the jobs to best meet yours and the clients goals? Have you ever told Frank he is doing a great job and you really appreciate him? Have you ever told Frank you care him about his personal and professional success? Have you ever asked Frank about what we could do as owners to make the operational part of our Company even more efficient and profitable? Have you even thought about asking people questions rather than telling them your orders when you have absolutely zero expertise in their areas of influence?”
I could have said, “Paul, this is good feedback and all of these questions are really good and I need to think about it and get back to you with a new leadership development action plan tomorrow.”
I didn’t respond like that. I was pissed. Not only did I have a forty year printing pressman veteran who did not respect me as the owner, my own co-owner didn’t respect me as the owner. After considering how I could quit my own company, I finally I asked myself a simple question: “What if it’s me? What if Frank and Paul are both right and I don’t deserve and haven’t earned that level of respect?”
I realized the answer to every one of Paul’s earlier questions was “No.” The old adage that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care is so true. The day I started to ask for Frank’s opinion and recognizing his contributions to the success of our Company was the same day that Frank started to come to me and ask for my opinion and what he could do to help me better achieve our goals.
There’s one more story I need to share about Frank that, in 1989, helped define who I am as a leader.
Frank was an efficiency guru. To be even more efficient, he bypassed the safety stops on our state-of the-art Heidlberg press. This allowed him to lift up the safety cage and have access to the rollers without stopping the press. With 40 years of experience, I felt he must know what he was doing…maybe it was even an industry standard for the greatest of pressman.
But, in my mind and heart, I knew the safety stops were there for a reason. One night, after everyone had gone home, I was in my office and Frank was finishing up a job. I heard Frank scream for help and found him with his arm caught up to his elbow in the press. Frank coached me on how to pop the rollers out of the press so we could free his arm. When I popped the last roller, he literally dropped to the ground. The next morning, Frank showed up with a black and blue arm that looked like it had been through a rolling pin.
I went out to the pressroom and told Frank to sit down with me on the side of the press. For four years, I had built up a relationship with Frank by valuing his opinion and asking him great questions. This time, I had a short speech for Frank: “Last night, you really scared me. Because I care about you and love you for who you are and what you have done for our business, I am now telling you this: If you don’t fix the bypass on the safety cage before you start work this morning, you can’t work here.” He looked at me and said, “It’s already done.”
Leadership is a balance. Doing the right thing isn’t easy, especially when you know the people you lead may not agree with your decision. When I saw the safety cage had been jerry-rigged, I knew it wasn’t right. But, I didn’t want to revert back to my old ways of telling. In this case, it was the right thing to do. Frank and I were both lucky the only damage was a black, blue, and slightly-flattened arm. If I hadn’t been there, it could have easily been a much graver situation.
Leadership is a relationship that is built over time. Most likely, you are reading this blog because you have a title and a place on the organizational chart. Now, you not only have a title, but you have the skills to build a relationship where people all around you are highly motivated to follow you in the direction you want lead.