Learning to Lead

If you agree with the old adage that leaders are born and not made, you believe that leadership ability is determined by nature, inherited through our DNA. On the other hand, if environment affects leadership ability, then a leadership development program is a valuable investment. For electrical contracting companies, both business philosophy and beliefs about the nature of leadership (whether it is inherited or can be developed) will determine the structure of leadership training programs. Here are some current perspectives on the most important traits of leaders and how they can be included in your leadership development program.

Key traits

In his book, “The Leadership Factor,” John Kotter proposes that leadership can be “defined, analyzed, and learned,” while he points out that it is not taught in business school, Kotter does not clarify how it can be learned.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, defines leadership in terms of the ability to develop a vision, share and discuss it with the organization, gain acceptance of it, and then “relentlessly drive the implementation of that vision” to a successful conclusion.

Roger Smith has admitted that the one thing he would have done differently as the CEO of General Motors would have been to communicate his vision earlier and more frequently. He attributes his failure to turn the company around sooner to this one factor.

In his book, “The Only Trait of a Leader,” electrical engineer John West suggests that leadership is based on one essential trait—having followers. His concept of leadership is based on both “heart-learning” as well as “head-learning” and the development of a decision-making framework not completely dependent on logic. The ability to make leadership decisions is internalized, similar to what educators would call “automaticity.” For example, you do not stop to consciously analyze and decode each word you are reading. Instead, you automatically create meaning from the symbols on the page.

While people follow leaders of their own accord, they are pushed by managers, according to West. Pushers may be able to force compliance, but they cannot make people care. As a result, managers must constantly add energy into the workplace, while leaders communicate a vision and specific goals and then periodically inject bursts of energy when needed.

Steve Sullivan, a former Army Ranger and corporate executive who wrote “Leading at Mach 2,” also uses energy as a leadership metric, sorting leaders into “contamination” and “combustion” categories. Subcategories of the former are labeled “incapacitator” and “depletor,” leaders who create an energy drain within their subordinates. “Combustion” contains two subcategories labeled “enhancer” and “energizer,” these leaders raise the energy level of their team members. His military and corporate experiences strengthened core values, such as integrity, loyalty, fairness and openness. Sullivan believes that the central tenet of great leaders is the ability to develop followers who are continually challenged to become successful in their own environments.

Joseph Jaworski, author of “Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership,” names these essential leadership characteristics—self-knowledge, availability, credibility, honesty and the ability to nurture—as the foundation for motivating others to carry out the mission of the leader as if it was their own. Jaworski believes leaders must promote a standard of excellence, be good listeners, learn from failure, empower others and live their core values. He writes of an intellectual and emotionally supportive environment, where communication is clear and the company adapts and evolves over time to meet the needs of the marketplace and changes its culture to empower employees.

These essential characteristics and core values are the mantras of leadership training—creating a clear vision, modeling excellence, embracing change, communicating well, empowering others to succeed, listening, learning from mistakes, and making good decisions within an ethical framework. They support the visions of leaders in creating environments that motivate employees and create corporate cultures so the organization achieves its goals.


Research supports the value of great leadership within the construction industry. If project leadership behavior has an effect on performance parameters, can it be assumed that upper level leadership is at least as important to overall company success? Clearly, most construction employers are convinced enough to invest in senior executive training, according to the results of a survey conducted by FMI, a construction-specific research, consulting and training organization. In its publication, “Training Today,” leadership training is the fifth most important training goal for all companies surveyed, and the average investment per senior executive is 36 hours annually. Traditional classroom training is preferred by 52 percent of reporting companies, while 26 percent use a combination of traditional and electronic methods, and 22 percent make no investment in senior executive training.

The top five challenges senior managers face are leading and motivating, effective communication, planning and scheduling, customer relations, and succession planning. The survey cites three “dangerous norms” in leadership development, including a lack of commitment to developing related systems, the omission of critical elements in leadership development, and the neglect of leadership development at the field level. The complete survey results can be downloaded from the FMI Web site (www.fminet.com).


It is evident that each electrical contractor must create a leadership development program unique to the needs of its customers and its current and future leaders. Whether you decide to use traditional classroom training, electronic delivery, personalized reading lists, or a combination of components, there are many choices available to fit every budget. Start by requiring each employee to design a personal development program with the assistance of a supervisor. Training components should be based on skills chosen by the employee and areas of improvement revealed during evaluations.

Develop a library of books, articles, Web sites, and workshops from which each person can select components to fit his or her individual program, and agree on specific deadlines for the completion of each step. FMI offers a variety of articles and newsletters on its Web site, such as the following series: Creating Your Leader Development Plan; Delegating for Leadership Development; Self-Leadership: Developing Your Mission Statement; and Clarifying Your World View.

Most leadership seminars and institutes begin with assessments of individual styles and philosophies and progress through exercises targeting implementation of techniques to build on style strengths and overcome style challenges. FMI offers industry-specific programs, a four-day Leadership Institute and individualized consulting. The National Electrical Contractors Association Management Education Institute offers programs developed specifically for electrical contractors (www.neca-mei.org), and the American Management Association (www.amanet.org) lists a wide range of leadership classes and topics, such as communication, negotiation and presentation skills.

Eschewing obfuscation

Communication is an essential component of effective leadership, and the communication of vision and clear expectations is imperative. Using complicated or highly technical language is a common error among executives who are trying to sound intelligent. Former vice president Spiro Agnew was famous for his alliterations, such as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but his meaning was often unclear. He lost credibility because of it.

All leaders are public speakers, and the power of the message is affected by communication skill. Credibility is undermined if body language and words are not congruent, but training can build awareness of these weaknesses. Writing skill is equally important and mediocre language ability is no longer acceptable in the contracting world.

Reasonably priced seminars to improve both written and verbal communication skills are available from Fred Pryor Seminars/CareerTrack (www.pryor.com) and SkillPath (www.skillpath.org). Many of these are offered through Webinars and online courses that can be taken at your convenience. For self-study, start with books such as “Power Talk: Using Language to Build Authority and Influence” by linguist Sarah Myers McGinty, and “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The latter will save you from total reliance on the spelling and grammar check tool on your word processing programs, which are unable to perceive homonyms and often provide misleading advice on grammar and usage.

Data or instinct

The ability to make strategic, rational decisions is another leadership skill that can be taught, but the traditional belief that business decisions are always based on a complicated system of statistical analysis is changing. Malcolm Gladwell argued persuasively in his best seller, “Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking,” in favor of intuitive decision making.

The research behind Gladwell’s theory can be found in “Gut Feeling: The Intelligence of the Unconscious,” by Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Gigerenzer writes clearly and convincingly about his research on gut instinct and offers examples of its superiority over complex data analysis.

Include intuition-based courses and books in future leadership development programs to support and balance strategic planning, data analysis, and benchmarking, and the decision-making process will be improved.

There is no easy, one-size-fits-all system for developing capable future leaders, so creating one is a great opportunity to analyze your current corporate culture. Do you have a clear vision? Do your employees understand and support it? Think about your core values and identify the leadership traits that align with them. At worst, you will discover that your corporate strategy is murky. At best, the process will give you a chance to create a new vision and practice your own leadership skills as you communicate it.

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Denise Norberg-Johnson

Financial Columnist
Denise Norberg-Johnson is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at ddjohnson0336@sbcglobal.net .

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