The-onrushing-train school of management.

After Saturday’s aside, we’re returning to our subject of leadership. Let’s start with four stories.

1. Imagine (for some of us it doesn’t take too much imagining – we’re either there or been there!) that you are the parent of a ten-year-old boy. He’s standing, lost in his own world, on the railroad tracks. You say, “Get off the tracks!” He looks up at you, quizzically.  

“Why?”  

“Because a train is coming!” He looks in the other direction, and all he can see is train. The noise is now deafening. The earth is shaking and the trees are swaying. He jumps to safety as the train roars by! “Wow! That was scary! Thank you!” 

Now imagine the same scenario the next day. You say, “Get off the tracks!” As before, he snaps out of his reverie. “Why?” 

“Because I said so!” He pauses, looks in both directions, and sees nothing. He puts his ear to the tracks. Not even the merest vibration. He looks at you again, unmoving, arms akimbo. “Nothing personal! But come and make me!”

2. Thirty-seven years ago, I was a newly-minted federal manager, and attending my first management short course, along with about two dozen other executives from government agencies and corporations in the Denver area. Our instructor was a dynamic guy by the name of Gene Koprowski, who was on the B-School faculty at the University of Colorado. He was perhaps in his mid-forties then. Tragically he would die of cancer within the next ten years, victim to a family genetic disposition. During that time we’d become friends. I miss him.

Anyway, that first night, after we’d done self introductions, Gene asked us, “What is the great motivator?” A softball question to get the ball rolling! All twenty-some of us, with IQ’s in triple digits, started tossing out glib answers. Several minutes later, we were breathing hard, the atmosphere a little tense. We had thrown out “money, ambition, fame, power, self-satisfaction,” and much more – everything but “love of chocolate.” Gene had been curtly dismissive. Wasn’t buying any of it.

Fear,” he finally said. “Fear is the great motivator. Put a gun to my head, and I’ll work like crazy for you.” We nodded at the insight. Of course!

“So,” he said softly, “since you all know that, why don’t you manage that way?”

!!!

We ground through another five minutes of misdirected answers. As before, none hit the mark. At last Gene showed us some mercy.

“Because,” he said, “if I manage you through fear, then the minute my back is turned, you all will beat my brains in.” He then followed this up with a great real-world example from his consulting experience. [Interested? Ask me sometime and I’ll tell you the rest of Gene’s anecdote. But more likely you can fill in your own story. A lot of bosses try to accomplish their work through intimidation.]

3. My father, who managed a group of research mathematicians at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh for a number of years, had a softer way of driving home this point. He’d tell my brother and me at the dinner table, “If I’m the foreman in a widget factory, and you and your brother are making the widgets, I can tell immediately if production is up or down relative to yesterday or last week. But in knowledge work it’s different. I can pass by two adjacent offices, and in each office the occupant may have his feet up on the desk. It’s mathematics! One may be working, and the other may not be. It’ll be a long time before I’m able to tell the difference.”

4. Between the elections of 1952 and the start of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, Harry Truman invited the press into the Oval Office. “Ike will come in here,” he said to the press, “and say ‘Do this!’ and ‘Do that!’…and nothing will happen. It’s not like the Army.”

What do all these vignettes tell us about management and leadership?[1]

For openers, that leadership, at whatever level, is much the same. And furthermore – whether within the context of a single family, or a small professional group, or the entire United States of America – it is not about the assertion of raw power.  Administration and leadership are not about command-and-control, top-down decisions, and seeing to it they are carried out – even though many executives today still give it a shot. Remember, in an earlier post we emphasized that in the world of the future, command-and-control, top-down decisions will become increasingly ineffective.

No, leadership is about something else. As the above episodes tell us, leadership is alerting people to possible threats in their blind spots. It’s making sure that they see something positive in their work, something that benefits them and gives their lives meaning even as it makes a difference to customers or taxpayers or students or whoever is the clientele. It’s getting people in such close touch with their highest aspirations that they don’t need you any longer to tell them what to do or why to do it.

Leadership is also much more.

We’ll unpack that further in future posts.


[1] There are real differences between management and leadership, but that too is for another day.
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