While walking through Home Depot, my favorite aisles are those aisles with tools, power tools, hand tools, and so forth. My mind always goes on imaginative wanderings, thinking about what those tools will go out into the world and do. Will an inexperienced hand learn on those tools? Will they build grand buildings? Will they destroy? What will those tools help accomplish? The potential held in a tool is as much a mystery as looking at a babe in arms and thinking, what will that soul go forward and do? I never become bored thinking about the potential held in a tool as part of the ongoing saga of humanity.
Without hands, a tool is useless; the tool cannot act independently. Guns do not shoot themselves; hammers do not strike anything alone; thus, we can see that tools need someone to fulfill the measure of their creation. For good or ill, the tool is only ever a force multiplier and requires intention through another party to act. A critical point to understand is the person’s intention of holding the tool, who decides whether that tool will build or destroy, and the value to the owner.
But, this article is about people’s potential; why begin discussing tools? To a leader, each person is a tool requiring training, delegation, trust, and motivation to achieve the measure of their creation. Have you ever witnessed an unskilled manager use, or abuse, their people? My first officer in the US Army National Guard was one of these unskilled managers. The stories and experiences from this manager are legion, fraught with examples of what not to do and the hubris of a person placed into a position of power above their competence level. I have long wondered, what did this officer’s boss think about this officer’s performance?
The first lesson in building people is this; everyone has someone they report to. Do your people know who they report to, and are they comfortable talking to this person? Consider the following:
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” – General Colin Powell
In more than nine years of Military Service, I can count on one hand the number of officers I trusted enough and were approachable sufficient to bring problems to, and I won’t even need the pinky and thumb. In talking to friends and family about this issue, their experiences are similar. Worse, the same problem exists with the non-commissioned officer corps. In my professional pursuits outside military service, I have worked with precisely one boss to whom I felt comfortable bringing issues.
While I strive to be the leader I wish I could take problems to, there is a realization that to my teams, I am being measured, weighed, and if found wanting, will never know I failed to be the leader to whom I would bring problems. Consider this for a moment. A leader could be solving problems and thinking, “My people bring their problems to me QED: I am a good leader.” While never realizing they are detestable and hated by their people. All because their people only bring work-related problems, and then only rarely. In the US Navy, I experienced this exact issue more than once, and the officers all thought they were “God’s gift to their people.” Massive egos, compensating for being vile and despicable.
Leaders, take note:
- What are the preferred names of the members of your teams?
- When was the last time you shared problems and asked for input from your followers?
- What are you learning daily, and who is teaching you?
- Do you know your followers sufficiently to advise?
- What quirks, talents, skills, or abilities do your people possess that you appreciate?
How you answer these questions determines more than your destiny as a leader and your team’s productivity in achieving business goals. When I begin a new project and select tools, I review what I know about my tools. My hammer has a loose head, but I will not change it out because it has the smoothness of age and is the best hammer for finishing work. This wrench has scratches in the head and a chisel mark in the handle that is exactly 6” and is handy in a pinch. Thus, when used on soft brass, the head will leave marks in the metal on which it is used. All this and more is reviewed, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and peculiarities, all known before engaging in a new project. When you know your tools, their potential is declared, and in communicating their potential, how and where they can be best used becomes common knowledge.
“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.” – General Schwarzkopf
“Ninety-Nine present of leadership failures are failures of character.” – General Schwarzkopf
Several of the worst people I have ever worked for had the moral integrity of a used car salesperson. They could not be trusted, except to be trusted to stab you in the back. No honesty, never forthright, always acting for the downfall of anyone they deemed was competition, and constantly engaged in stealing glory while meting out the worst punishments. While the experiences fulfilled another axiom from General Schwarzkopf, the education was brutal to suffer through.
“You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it, and, therefore, you learn how to do it.” – General Schwarzkopf
These experiences alone would qualify me to write this article; however, through a multitude of academic classes and degrees, I have gained more fundamental qualifications to justify what I am about to declare. If you think a title makes you a leader, you are the problem in your organization’s leadership! In working with newly minted, freshly commissioned, officers in the US Army and the US Navy, I have learned through sad experience too many consider the rank and titles their “Golden Ticket” to being abusers of people through “leadership.” One particular example stands out more clearly from the others.
While serving in the US Navy, my first Chief Engineer was book smart and common sense inept! This man was more dangerous with tools in his hand, even though he could verbatim quote pages from maintenance manuals. Shortly before I arrived on the ship, the Chief Engineer had started a fire on board the vessel in multiple engine and auxiliary rooms by applying shaft brakes to an operating shaft instead of to the shaft that had been locked out and tagged out. The Chief Engineer then compounded his errors by blaming the engineers who had properly locked out/tagged out the shaft needing maintenance. This was a major issue that proved cream rises and trash sinks, and this leader was absolute trash!
The bitter cherry on this crap sundae, the example of the Chief Engineer, was a symptom of a greater sickness and moral desert in the Engineering Department. Chiefs were force-multiplying the Chief Engineers example, and the senior non-commissioned officers were force-multiplying the chiefs example. Who suffered, the lowest enlisted, and the rest of the ship. Maintenace was rarely done properly, watchstanding was hit or miss, and the example plagued the Engineering Department for years after the Chief Engineer was summarily dismissed.
The only redeeming factor from this experience, I learned the lessons of what negative leadership does well. Leaders take note:
- If character problems lead to poor performance or behaviors detestable in your teams, look no further than the reflection in the mirror for both an answer and a root cause.
- Your followers will observe what you do more than what you say. How are you acting?
- Stop looking up, you are a leader, and your first vision should be to look sideways and make sure your people are on the same level before you look up.
- Before embracing new strategies, first review character!
The following is critical to building people and promoting potential:
“To be an effective leader, you have to have a manipulative streak – you have to figure out the people working for you and give each tasks that will take advantage of their strengths.” – General Schwarzkopf
Leadership is a balancing act between helping people take advantage of their strengths and training them to overcome individual weaknesses. Yet, leaders often act like managers, never training, and always micro-managing to shave strengths preventing competition with the leader. Which are the actions of neither a leader nor a manager, but a tyrant! Petty authoritarians acting the role of tyrants produce more harm than war, poverty, and disease combined.
What actions are needed? We conclude with the following:
“TRUE courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job.” – General Schwarzkopf
The job of a leader begins with being a good follower; even if to be a good follower, you must be the loyal opposition standing like a rock doing the right thing in the face of adversity. Moral integrity is critical to being a good leader and is foundational to building people. Leaders take special note and act accordingly:
- What is your moral code?
- Why do you embrace those morals?
- Do you understand integrity is doing what is right, especially when you think nobody is watching? Do you have moral integrity?
- Do you know your identity, and are you comfortable with your identity?
- What character do you possess, and is that character tied to your morality and integrity?
When you are placed to influence people, build potential by first knowing, and then doing that which is the harder right, than the easier wrong.
© Copyright 2021 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.