Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hands-on Leadership is the Real Key

Here’s a scene: It’s crowded – a bit more than 5,000 people living in an area that covers – if you include all the floors in the ‘building’ about 12 acres.  But they also work there.  And they share those 12 acres with heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, and a large array of weapons of all sorts.  It is loud, very loud; so loud that whenever anyone is ‘outside’ failure to wear some sort of hearing protection will result in hearing loss.  Most have hearing loss irrespective of how hard they try to protect their ears.  Workdays average 12 to 14 hours in length but are often longer, and the average person will work 26 days a month.  Leaving work without permission is a criminal offense.  Talking back to the boss is a criminal offense.  Even when you are not working you are not able to leave the facility.  Doing so will normally result in your death, and will at a minimum result in your confinement.

Here’s a second scene: an industrial facility that regularly engages in an extremely complex industrial process requiring dozens of actions per each event, with machines that cost tens of millions of dollars, at very high speeds, with essentially no margin for error.  The process requires the interaction of dozens of people, but has been so carefully scripted that in one survey, conducted over a period of more than a decade, after literally three million complex events, which included tens of millions of steps, only three errors were reported in the entire system of systems.  It is an error rate that is not matched anywhere else in the industrial or post-industrial age.

The catch?  They are the same scene: a US Navy aircraft carrier at sea conducting flight operations – launches and recoveries.

There was an article in Forbes recently that lauded the Navy and the Navy’s achievement of these results but the article missed the real keystone of all of this: leadership.  Leadership is an overused word in nearly every setting, in the military as much as in business.  And while the commanding officer of a ship is a key element of the leadership and performance of the crew, 20 and 21 year old sailors, jammed into a hot, loud, ship for weeks and weeks (and months and months) on end, the real leadership, and the real thing that the writer missed, is the very real leadership that takes place well out of sight of most observers.

It is a commonplace to say that ‘the chief, the sergeants, the senior NCOs are the real leaders.’  Unfortunately, it has been said so often that is misses the point.  Leadership is a process of creating a vision and connecting that organizational vision to the individual’s goals.  Admirals and Generals, Captains and Colonels can help create a greater vision, a greater goal, but there has to be a daily process of connection, of tying that ‘big’ vision to the day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute actions of the ‘kid’ on the shop floor, or in the case of the aircraft carrier, the sailors on the flight deck, the sailors working the arresting gear, the sailors maintaining aircraft, etc.  That is, in fact, a much more difficult process then the one presented to the Captain of the ship.  The Captain can ‘wave his hand,’ speak in generalities, and delegate actions.  But the chief has to make it work – every day.  Every day he has to keep the dozen or two-dozen sailors who work directly for him focused on their jobs.  Why?  Because, for example, in the case of setting arresting gear on an aircraft carrier, a wrong setting will result in a catastrophe.  If the arresting gear isn’t set properly there WILL be an accident; set the resistance too high it will pull the arresting hook out the airplane and the airplane goes over the side, set it too low and the aircraft pulls the cable out until it snaps – and the aircraft goes over the side.

The conditions are, to the uninitiated, extreme.  To the initiated, they eventually become worse.  It is always hot, always loud, there is NO privacy, you are always at work.  Who is responsible for keeping everyone focused?  The Leading Petty Officers and the Chiefs – in particular the Chiefs.  They are involved minute-by-minute in the hands on leadership and supervision of the sailors, they are the glue that keeps this process together, far more so than the officers.  The chiefs, to be effective, must learn how to connect the overarching organizational goals into the daily and specific goals of the individuals in their small team.  Good chiefs learn that skill, that ability to simplify the larger goals, communicate them, make them relevant to each sailor, and then connect each sailor’s personal goals to the larger goals.  It requires the distilled essence of leadership – and is the key to the success of these highly complex organizations that are military units.

The points made in the article about training, and review boards and practice, etc.; these are tools of the leadership process.  But the key is the deck-plate leadership that is found among the chief (and the Gunnery Sergeants and the other senior NCOs in the services) who must, on a truly continual basis, provide hands-on leadership.  True organizational excellence is not going to be found in a training program, a personnel management program, a comprehensive exercise program, or a performance review program or all the above.  Real excellence in the end requires all those things, but it also requires the glue that holds it all together: leadership, and especially, the hands-on, detailed, deck-plate (shop floor) leadership that is found among Navy Chiefs.


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