So there I was, the third newly-hired General Manager in two and a half years in a struggling automotive dealership and faced with the task of evaluating the competence of the existing department managers. These were the managers that would be required to support the renewed vision of the dealer and institute the processes that would hopefully get the store on its feet. I needed leaders. Were they worth keeping? Should I just blow them all out and start fresh? How do you know? I, of course, wanted to give them the opportunity to be successful, but do temporary results lead to long term progress? At one time or another in my career I have read and studied every management book I could get my hands on, but the question remained. Where to start? It is often funny where our answers come from …
As a young man I had this old guy that lived next door. I would see him from time to time out walking his fuzzy little dog and didn’t think much of him. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was a highly decorated retired naval captain and, typical of many combat vets, he lived in total anonymity being mostly taken for granted by the casual observer. At seventeen years old I was just as self-obsessed as anyone my age, but one day this “old guy” got my attention. Initially, it was a result of his slightly dark, self-deprecating sense of humor. I noticed this first as it was being directed at me and my frustrated attempts to get a stubborn lawnmower started. I thought to myself, “Wait a minute…the old dude that lives next door, that I don’t even know, is making fun of me.” When I looked up to proffer an indignant teenager scowl and snappy retort, I was greeted by the ornery smile of a mischievous schoolboy pasted to the face of, well, an old guy. I liked him instantly.
Over time, the old captain shared many sea stories and descriptions of combat that would keep me enthralled for hours at a time. He shared both the horror and the glory with a deep sense of humility and grace. Fast forward many years to my current situation in taking over a new dealership, and one particular conversation stood out.
I had asked him what was more difficult, following orders or, as his career progressed, assigning people to carry out the orders? He thought about this for a moment and shared about a time he was required to pick two young lieutenants to lead men into harm’s way. The mission was important, dangerous, and had to be accomplished, but who were the right officers to lead it? He had many young lieutenants under his command to choose from. Some were all spit and polish, some were by-the-book and cautious, most were equally trained, and all wanted the opportunity to prove their worth as officers. Every officer under his command understood the importance of planning, logistics, and execution of a plan, and all, in theory, should be able to lead the mission. But the question came down to this; if, in theory they can all lead … who would be followed?
We have all seen this at one time or another; an intelligent manager with all the knowledge, given the responsibility of leading a group to an expected result and falling short. Ultimately because he or she was not being “followed” by their subordinates—they were just being “tolerated.”
These same managers have read all the books, attended the seminars, and in the end were pronounced a “qualified leader.” If you happen to work for one of these qualified leaders they frequently feel the need to remind you who the boss is because you are obviously not smart enough to remember. If they happen to work for you, they are the first to sing their own praises, point out the deficiency in others, and the validity of their own ideas. It is not unusual to see people roll their eyes as they pass and the so-called leader remains oblivious. Would you follow this guy?
At the end of the day, what is a leader?
Simply put, a leader is someone who is being followed, not just tolerated. Take a look at your managers. Are they just being tolerated because your employees care enough about you and the store not to leave? The net results of this situation are mediocre at best. Or are they following the person that you appointed to carry out the company’s mission to its highest result? A manager can have all the knowledge, bright ideas, and understanding of your vision, but it is the ability to build conviction in others that makes a leader.