Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Leadership by the coalface

I work in a place that is on the edge of shutdown-vs-reopen and was in mothballs until two months ago, which it had been in since March (until then I ran the QC lab). Officially I am one plant operator among a small number, but unofficially I am the plant superintendent and should the plant be fully opened again it will be made official, whereupon I’ll be site 2IC. As part of that I’m in training for the position, but I've also thinking about leadership as such, mostly for that prospective work but also for when the boss is away and I'd be the go-to man for the duration.

The reason I am busy at the moment is because of unexpected changes to plans made by higher management. December quota has been increased by another 37.5%, and to meet it we now have to work every day that isn’t a public holiday. We had previously been told that we wouldn’t be working in December and as a result many guys had made plans for travel and the like. Since they’re off, those of us who remain have to carry the load. In fact, from the 19th to the 24th it will be myself and another supervisor who will be doing the main plant operation work 12hrs a day each because everyone else will be on holiday! (So, other than this post and one more I have coming regarding a reader’s comment about my value theory, originating elsewhere, I probably wont be doing major pieces for the rest of the year.)

This is not at all a complaint. Not for one second do I resent being at the coalface. Quite the opposite, in fact. Getting a damn good grounding at running the place, being an operator for a while, is essential for knowing how to manage it. I had run the QC lab for five years so I was familiar with the process, but not with the fine detail and nuances of operation that a superintendent would have to know about in order to have a chance of making meaningful directions and plans etc. But it’s not just the concretes of operation that I am thinking about, it is also my relationship to the other operators of whom I will be the boss if the site is made fully operational again. I have had that conversation with them about prospects. They have no objection (one guy already calls me ‘boss’), but there’s more to a successful relationship with them as their boss than just that.

One of the things I found myself thinking about is that being here with them will show that there’s nothing I’d be expecting them to do that I haven’t done myself and wont continue to do if the need arises. Prior to being in the lab I was a plant operator while still at university part time, so I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the plant’s detail, though I wasn’t current on the major changes to some of the machinery. Nevertheless, it does mean that over the years and not just the last two months, I’ve done 12-hour rotating shifts, I’ve been in extremely noisy environments (with muffs) for hours at a time, I’ve gotten soaked and salt-encrusted from head to toe more times than I can remember, I’ve been outdoors frantically changing pump filters at 2am in the middle of a thunderstorm (and enjoyed every minute of it) to try to keep material flow going, I’ve been outside loading and unloading trucks with the forklift while under the Australian summer sun, etc.

It then occurred to me to ask what the value of this was besides the individual tasks themselves, and what the principle at issue was in relation to me directing others to perform these tasks. I’ve heard reference to bosses being good who won’t give orders they wouldn’t themselves carry out, but leaving aside the feel-good response one is supposed to have, what is the merit of a leader demonstrating that he’s actually been there and done things? It’s not just working man’s kudos with no higher purpose other than to be ‘one of the lads,’ as contrast to the boss being someone who is ‘too good’ to get his or hands dirty, is it? More specifically, is the principle one that is objectively good and which should be praised and emulated by leaders everywhere, or is merely a reflection of a faddish cultural quirk, or, worse, a reflection of an egalitarian spirit that expects humility and sacrifice from leaders? The first is what I hold to: it is good, and its merit goes right to the heart of what leadership means and how to implement it. Remember that my concern here is the leadership issue rather than the management knowledge issue, though being known for the latter will of course help in the former as well as being a value in its own right.

I believe that the best way to look at leadership is to approach it on the basis of taking one’s context as joint action where one person sets the direction taken by both. In contrast to a joint action where, purely for the needs of the day, someone makes a contribution to methodology, a leader is someone who sets directions as a matter of routine. Tying it to value, which Ayn Rand defined as that which one acts to gain and/or keep, I’ve come to the conclusion that the definition of leadership is the art of showing men how to consistently achieve greater value than they could achieve by their own thinking.

Where does coalface leadership come into it? One of the things a leader needs to do is communicate what values are achievable and how they can be achieved. The merit of a leader having been at the coalface himself and still willing to go there as needed is that it is a major means of doing this. The most critical effect of getting in there and doing things that one would ask one’s subordinates to do, and being well known for the willingness to do this, is that it demonstrates to them at a visceral level that you honestly hold that the task set is worth doing. It is one thing to give orders and say the work is important, but quite another to physically back that up with action of one’s own. Hence it drives home quite solidly that the task has value. Doing it and doing it well provides inspiration, and in time, that becomes achievement.

There are other things that are communicated, too, with varying degrees of importance. These include:
- letting men know that you are aware of what the task requires, and so have a solid grounding for planning and integration that is practical and achievable (this is what I mentioned before about the cross linking of the management aspect with the leadership aspect)
- letting men know that you have the practical experience of what they face and so makes possible a common frame of reference for discussion of problems at work
- letting men know that you know how to appraise their performance because you’ve been there yourself
- letting men know that you are there to back them up, and can jump in to lend a hand, and that you wont simply let them carry the burden while you take the credit for the achievement.

There is also an issue of ditching the elitism that still retains currency, that the university educated are somehow “better” than others at a cultural level. Codswallop! If I had my druthers, people wouldn’t be hired as engineers who weren’t themselves former electricians or mechanics, doctors who weren’t EMT’s or nurses, that military officers must first have been enlisted men for a few years, and so on (I note that, in Atlas, Dagny made a point of being a dispatcher at Rockport station while she was in university before she started climbing the corporate ladder). BUT, that’s another story.

Taking it back to the topic, coalface leadership is principle that doesn’t apply solely at the level of bottom-rung management, of the seam between blue and white collars. Instead, it goes all the way up to the CEO. Again, of course, there is the interplay of the other management skills requiring operational knowledge with the leadership skills, but it is still valuable and in same way for a CEO to be known to be willing to do things that are mostly done by his subordinates. Certainly, the fact that CEO’s are drawn from the ranks of other C-level officers reduces the quantity of visceral reminding required, but the other C-level officers look to the CEO for leadership in general just as strongly, if not more so, as the floor-man does his supervisor. As part of that, a C-level officer still needs occasional visceral reminders that the concretes (at the C-level) as the CEO orders are important (eg policies, admin procedures) and is there to back up those C-level officers as and when required.

That much I have figured out for myself. Perhaps it is detailed more, and better, in management textbooks - it wasn’t (as I recall) in the one I was assigned in engineering school, but absolutely one can see reflections of the principle in the works of say Sun Tsu, whose Art of War (the one with the Foreword by James Clavell, at least) includes stories of the merits of generals who got in and among their men as required, in contrast to those who remained aloof and impertinent. And, as I recall, it was also instrumental in Henry V’s victory at Agincourt against an enemy on its home soil who outnumbered his forces six to one. So, perhaps I am not original at all - but was an interesting and valuable exercise for me nevertheless.



  1. John,
    I've always thought that the requirement to be enlisted before becoming an officer (floated, originally, by Robert Heinlein) would be a fine way to run a military, although I've not served.

    When I was growing up, the ranch behind us was owned by a VP of Morrison-Knudsen, a big projects construction company that started in the early 20th century and disappeared in the 1990's due to appalling management. But in its heydey it was responsible for some of the biggest engineering jobs in the world.

    This VP, Al Harker, started as a wheelbarrow boy and only had a 7th grade education. He worked his way up and was site boss during the construction of the Cape Canaveral space center.

    He was telling a cat operator exactly what he wanted to have done at a particular juncture and the cat driver kept saying that it couldn't be done. So Al jumped on the cat, did the job, and jumped off.

    There were two endings to the story. The one they told in the kid's hearing was that the driver had to acknowledge that Al "wasn't just a suit" like the other managers. The second, told among the adults (which I overheard) was that Al fired him on the spot because "If I have to do your **** job for you then what the **** good are you to have around?!"

    I think the second was the true, unbowdlerized version. He didn't suffer fools gladly, even if they were children.

    C. Andrew

  2. Thank you for that story! I would well believe the second version, though I wonder how much union trouble he'd have had to deal with as a result.

    I had heard of MK, they had a diesel train MG-set refurb shop open here for a few years until they went belly up. The grafitti'd hulks of half a dozen rolling-stock tankers they left behind are still there. At least the gigantic engineering workshop is humming again under new owners and has a gleaming paint job with their logo visible from a few miles away!