When the Sidewalk Ends

Finding Your Path to Leadership:

Alph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” which can be applied to electrical contracting businesses. As a leader, you may often find that the sidewalk ends just as you find a comfortable and profitable direction. Suddenly, you’re back on the gravel path hoping to find safe footing. You must create your own personal path based on your individual strengths.

In his book, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,” Wess Roberts describes leadership as “the privilege to have the responsibility to direct the actions of others in carrying out the purposes of the organization, at varying levels of authority and with accountability for both successful and failed endeavors.” He didn’t consider leadership as a model or system and believed that no such model could predict the future. Attila attained his position by acclimation after he captured a flaming sword from a meadow.

Attila is an odd role model for the modern business leader; his “team” ruthlessly plundered and destroyed many civilized European communities. Yet, he exemplifies effective leadership because of his ability to create a nation from a disjointed, shortsighted band of barbarians without a common purpose beyond destroying the next village. His team performed amazing feats against insurmountable odds. Mysteriously, he died sometime during his wedding night, perhaps killed by his ambitious sons, his new wife (whose father he had executed) or by a hemorrhage from too much partying.

As a leader, however, he was successful because he wanted to be in charge, and he insisted that his followers adhere to communal rules and customs and behave honorably. He valued good morale and discipline, delegated both responsibility and authority, rewarded his followers generously and chose his enemies carefully. Today, he would be considered an entrepreneur, a diplomat, a brilliant military strategist and a popular host at parties.

In contrast, the legendary King Arthur was known for establishing a more democratic government in Camelot, with a round table symbolizing collegial decision-making. His kingdom suffered when his wife and a trusted knight broke its honor code. Unlike Attila, Arthur was unable to enforce his own value system, but his decision-making system was quite modern. In his book, “Elizabeth I, CEO,” Alan Axelrod writes of a slender, frail 25-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family who assumed the throne of England as it was about to become bankrupt. The queen became perhaps the first turnaround expert, rescuing a failing economy and government, working both sides of the aisle by building a loyal staff and a loyal opposition and leaving England the legacy of its greatest historical period. She managed to combine her royal image with a common touch, single-minded pursuit of her vision and a no-excuses style that crushed her competitors.

Axelrod also wrote “Patton on Leadership,” about the general who led one of the most successful Allied campaigns of World War II. George S. Patton was known for his ego, abrasiveness and full-steam-ahead style. His creative response to orders and inability to operate diplomatically on the Allied team eventually caused his downfall as a general, but his troops adored him. His army completed one of the longest marches ever performed, under severe winter conditions, to ensure a victory in Italy that helped win the war.

Patton was a successful leader because he forged ahead against all odds, had the ego and ambition to maintain his position and achieve his goals, gained and held the loyalty of his followers, and was never distracted by nonessentials. He was a student of military history, was intolerant of cowardice but compassionate with the brave, and probably would gladly have met German Gen. Erwin Rommel in a one-on-one tank battle to determine the outcome of the war. Perhaps more than any other quality, Patton had single-minded devotion to a result.

In contrast, his colleague, Omar Bradley, was the soldier’s general. He blended in with his troops, curbed his ego and downplayed his authority. Bradley also had the loyalty of his troops but was diplomatic, respectful of his superiors and able to put aside his own ambition to play well with the other generals. Both Bradley and Patton were successful at a time when leadership meant strong personal commitment and the ability to lead followers under difficult conditions to an uncertain goal.

Surprisingly, these past leaders were always aware of the impact they had on their followers. Their superior, Dwight Eisenhower, who later was elected president of the United States, said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” Great leaders have always been great communicators of their vision, but also relationship builders.

Today, more than ever, leadership requires excellent relationship and communication skills—with customers, employees, suppliers and competitors. It also demands integrity and the ability to model trustworthiness. The single most important factor in building trust is congruency—the degree to which the nonverbal communication matches what we say. You will be judged as a leader on this factor, no matter what type of leadership style you use.

More recent leadership training systems have emphasized not only decision-making skills and the ability to build and achieve a mission, goals and objectives, but the honing of such communication skills. Thomas Gordon’s book, “Leadership Effectiveness Training,” proposes a leadership system based on a human relations revolution. While the power of a leader can come from the ability to reward or punish, the title and job description, or one’s knowledge or expertise, only the first of these three can destroy human relationships.

The effective leader then must be able to influence people without using power. This leader must understand the needs of his or her followers, based on Abram Maslow’s pyramid. The needs of the followers, from survival needs (food, shelter, safety), through acceptance by others, to the achievement of self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization, must be satisfied by their leaders. Then, and only then, can the needs of the organization also be met.

Much of the Gordon’s system is based on letting followers determine the solutions to existing and potential problems and then staying out of the way while they are implemented. The leader becomes a coach and facilitator for the group, instead of the dictator of policy and procedure. Leaders and managers use a “no-lose” method of facilitating and resolving conflicts as well as an ongoing schedule of periodic planning conferences to solve problems.

This democratic leadership training has been used by teachers and parents as well as business leaders.

Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” also wrote “The Leader in You.” His leadership philosophy is also based on empathy and motivation. He advises leaders to handle mistakes and offer criticism carefully, avoiding the blame game. In his opinion, leaders should admit mistakes, listen carefully and respect the dignity of others.

Leadership, according to Carnegie, is about balance, positive expectations, enthusiasm and focus, and motivation is based on human relationships, not on authoritarian power. This is not strictly a modern approach. In the mid-1700s, Catherine II of Russia said, “I praise loudly. I blame softly.”

The newest book on the shelf is written by the president of the University of Illinois.

In “The Nature of Leadership,” Joseph White offers his short answer to what it takes to lead successfully—setting aspirations, recruiting great people and bringing high energy and enthusiasm to the job. He then offers a leadership pyramid built on several foundational requirements—ability, strength, character and the desire to be in charge.

The center section of the pyramid balances the head and the heart, using the cold-blooded reptile and the warm-blooded mammal as symbols. You are more reptilian if you are tough, disciplined, analytical and detached. If you are more mammalian, you are nurturing, warm, trustworthy, people-oriented, can understand context and have good communication ability. White advises that leaders must have some qualities from each of these creatures.

At the top of the pyramid, he describes great leaders as risk-takers and innovators who actively seek talented people, have a big picture or “helicopter” perspective on issues and show “sparkle factor” or charisma. Visit White’s Web site (www.thenatureofleadership.com), and take the short quiz to receive a personal profile.

How does all of this apply to electrical contractors? Isn’t your leadership style built on power and the ability to crush the competition? Washington Post columnist Geneva Overholser said, “Power is the ability to make change.” In your business today, you must be a change advocate, and actively find creative people. Then let them operate more freely than your predecessors. You become a servant-leader, facilitating and motivating people instead of leading your troops in full military regalia. Author and speaker Margaret Wheatley clarifies that what we fear most in our organizations are fluctuations, disturbances and imbalances but are the primary source of creativity. If your followers cannot help build your path, they will leave you to fall into the puddle at the end of the sidewalk all by yourself.

Leading today is about people, but the common thread among great leaders is the courage to persist against impossible odds, to meet the challenge of change and to maintain the grand vision. Great rewards are gained from taking great risks and holding less tightly to the controls. Roman teacher and philosopher Epictetus (55–135 A.D.) knew it long ago: “Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes. Therefore give yourself fully to your endeavors.” No matter how you build your personal path, leadership is a full-immersion lifestyle.     ECEC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached via e-mail 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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