Leadership, by definition, can mean position or ability. Position is official and generally accompanied by a title such as “general manager” or “vice president.” Ability is less tangible. Accessing a person’s ability to lead is often a matter of debate.
When we think of leaders in our country, the debate has turned rabid. Arguments become so heated that many families can no longer share their political opinions without it becoming a personal battle.
In our personal lives, many of us never really want to become leaders. We just want to do our job well, hopefully get some recognition for it, and make a decent living. That’s exactly what I wanted. I never felt comfortable with the idea of becoming a leader. But circumstances sometimes have a way of making decisions for us.
I’ve always enjoyed working in the shop, especially on challenging and interesting projects. Naturally, I gravitated towards custom shops, especially architectural millwork. I wasn’t particularly talented in woodworking but I worked diligently to develop my skills because I loved doing it. After a number of years, I was appointed to become a team leader, or “job captain.” So, without actively pursuing it, I ended up in a leadership position.
I was responsible for completing projects accurately and in a timely manner. Part of my job was to assess new woodworkers on my team. If they weren’t doing their job well enough, my negative assessment would be a key factor in having them fired. That was the part I was never comfortable with because very often they were doing the best they could and just needed more experience to perfect their skills. I could empathize with them since it took me a significant amount of time to learn the trade well enough to do that kind of work. Firing them seemed heartless to me.
In retrospect, architectural millwork was a demanding specialty and these workers maybe just needed to work in a less demanding environment until their skills were up to a higher level. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that the company just couldn’t afford to keep them on and train them from the ground up.
This lesson in leadership made me even less enthusiastic about becoming a leader. In fact, I wanted to avoid it altogether so I decided to work for myself, just a one-man shop in a garage. I figured I’d have low overhead so I’d have less pressure on me to achieve high production. Well, the cost of supporting my family while my wife stayed at home to raise our children put an end to that. I had to hire helpers. Once I did, I was in the same boat as when I was a job captain, only in rougher seas. That experience certainly helped me appreciate why the companies I had previously worked for couldn’t afford to keep someone who wasn’t producing adequately.
So I went back to work for another millwork company. But the salary I received as a cabinetmaker was insufficient for supporting a family on Long Island. I had to seek a promotion. You guessed it; I was back into a leadership role. There was no turning back.
What I learned from all this is that leadership is difficult but necessary. In many ways, being a good leader means surrendering idealistic ideas in order to make things work in a competitive world. Many decisions are hard but unavoidable.
As I progressed into the world of middle management, I found myself acting as a liaison between upper management and workers in the shop. My job included carrying out the policies of those who owned and/or ran the company. At the same time, I had to establish a good relationship with employees who worked in the shop.
So, through these experiences, I’ve found that a good leader must have several abilities and skills. First, He or she must be able to understand the needs and desires of the people that he works with in all his daily tasks. It was certainly helpful to me to have worked as a cabinetmaker in the shop so I could understand the needs of people who worked in the shop. At the same time, I understood the position of business owners and managers.
But understanding is not enough. A good leader must make people accept some things that are not in their best interest. So a manager must be able to persuade. He must be able to make people on one side of an issue understand the point of view of the other side. He must show that it is necessary to compromise and he must do so without being dictatorial. In other words, he must be a good negotiator.
These skills must be employed in all his business dealings, whether he’s dealing with customers, associates, vendors, and anyone else with whom the business has a relationship. As representative of the company, he must keep the interests of the company as top priority while addressing the concerns of outside interests. He must always treat the people he encounters with respect.
A good leader will accomplish these tasks with integrity. Deceptive practices may win some battles but eventually people see through dishonest and underhanded schemes. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter how good of a negotiator a person is. Nobody will be convinced. They may reluctantly agree because of necessity but in reality they won’t feel the need to be honest with a leader if they know that that leader is not being honest with them. The relationship may not be severed but it will always be one of distrust and confrontation.
We see the results of this degraded relationship in all aspects of business and government. Spokesmen of each group become insensitive to the interests of the opposing group and as a result, become disrespectful. Once it becomes a battle of egos, everybody loses (except, of course, the lawyers that represent each side of the conflict).
Being in a leadership role is never easy, whether it be in middle management in a woodworking company or being a political leader. It requires a strong sense of right and wrong and, at the same time, the ability to empathize with the interests of opposing parties. I can certainly empathize with people in leadership and have great respect for those who do it well.