Looking at leadership

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The consequences of executives’ actions have impact that reaches far beyond themselves. In fact, these consequences can impact other people, resources, enterprises, and even national and global issues, including the economy, environment, politics, government, and humanitarian causes.” –Matthew Paese, vice president-executive succession management for global consulting firm Development Dimensions International

Lots of challenges are facing trucking fleets large and small as 2011 begins its uneasy dawn: a still shaky U.S. economy, ever-higher fuel prices, the rising cost of equipment, a growing shortage of drivers (among other personnel), the uncertain direction for hours of service (HOS) reform … the list goes on.

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That’s why perhaps now, more than ever, leadership skills are going to be one of the most highly prized (yet at times least-valued) components within trucking companies going forward – and that’s regardless of whether they operate just one power unit or several thousand.

Take, for example, the ability to sift through what’s become a simply monstrous surge of information overflow and find the crucial facts; or the ability to adapt to an ever changing landscape of customer demands and needs, without losing focus on the fundamentals of freight movements; and of course the ability to listen, and not just to customers, but to employees as well. Finally, there is the ability to act; to be able to pull the trigger, as it were, on decisions large and small – for indecisiveness is a killer of any enterprise, civilian or military, like no other.

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These may seem like simple skills – almost rudimentary in trucking circles – but they are pillars without which no successful business in the rough-and-tumble world of freight can last.

One example of leadership I often refer to is Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S. (at left).

The great writer David Halberstam summed him up this way: “Harry Truman was, whatever else, a decisive man. [Experience] had taught him to get the best people you can, gather the best information possible, as the best question you could think of, estimate the likely consequences, then just make the decision and get on with it.”

Another is retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William “Gus” Pagonis, who served as the head of logistics for the American forces involved in the 1991 Gulf War, then went on to serve as executive vice president for logistics at Sears Roebuck & Co. until 2004 (he’s now vice chairman of third-party logistics supplier Genco in Pittsburgh, PA).

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I had the good fortune to hear General Pagonis (pictured at right) speak at a Council of Logistics Management meeting in Chicago about 13 years ago and still remember the keys points he stressed to the packed room.

First, he welcomed any and all ideas from his staff on how to improve logistics at Sears – but only if they came on a 3x5 index card.

“Don’t spend hours and hours on a power point presentation – and more importantly, don’t make me sit through one,” he said at the time. “Get the basic idea down; how it’ll work, how it’ll make things better, more efficient, etc. We’ll the get the details later if it looks promising.”

Another point: he always – and I mean ALWAYS – reserved an hour out of his day for exercise, and he expected his staff to do the same. The reason? Regular exercise kept everyone healthy, reduced stress, and also stimulated creative thinking on any number of issues.

My favorite “Pagonis point” revolved around new hires. “We’d get a shiny new logistics manager sporting an MBA [masters of business administration] and the first thing I’d do is put him in charge of the night shift at one of our warehouses for six months.” Pagonis’ reasoning for such a move went like this: if the guy could hack it there, he could hack it anywhere in the logistics world.

[Here’s a clip of Pagonis speaking at an Aberdeen Research meeting in 2008, recalling the moment when he found out he’d be handling the logistical needs for a cross-global military operation then called “Desert Shield,” a name later changed to “Desert Storm” when the shooting started.]

Yes, we’ve heard stuff like this before, many might say – and they’d be absolutely right, too, for there are enough books out there on “corporate leadership” to fill a 53-foot trailer, no doubt. Yet it might not be a bad idea to revisit the fundamentals of “business leadership” before the New Year kicks into high gear because – according to at least one survey that’ll be coming out soon – managers might not be as good as they think they are in this area.

A survey conducted by global consulting firm Development Dimensions International (DDI) last September with 1,100 front-line managers indicated many might be over-estimating their skills, with surprisingly little self-doubt.

Part of a broad management study called Finding the First Rung, DDI’s research indicated 72% of the managers in this survey never questioned their ability to lead others during their first year on the job, and were also unlikely to rate themselves as weak in a number of leadership attributes, such as planning, communication and adaptability.

[The Wall Street Journal did a detailed story on this survey in November last year as well.]

This management belief is worrisome to some of DDI’s experts, like Matthew Paese, vice president-executive succession management, because such overconfidence in the face of the amount of change going on in business today could be the recipe for disaster.

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“As roles grow in complexity and leaders become inundated with information, the opportunity to reflect thoughtfully can be lost almost completely,” Paese (at left) noted in a recent DDI white paper on this subject. “When this lack of opportunity to focus persists over time, a deleterious effect occurs which can cause significant lapses in judgment and performance; objectives critical to personal and business success are compromised.”

Another problem is that the “shelf life” of leadership answers is becoming shorter. “Executive roles are more dynamic than ever,” Paese stressed. “What is necessary for success in a role today could be radically different tomorrow. Mergers, acquisitions, technology changes, competitive threats, terrorism, and a host of other such forces can result in major shifts in what would be considered the most important tasks that a leader must accomplish in any given month, quarter, or year.”

As a result, leaders in today’s environment must develop agility to respond immediately to these changing circumstances, and they must do so in a way that remains consistent with the direction of the business, he explained.

“Given a decreasing shelf life for the right answers, it can be a significant deterrent to success if leaders become over reliant on past approaches,” Paese added. “It is also true that being good is not enough. Even the most talented leaders will fail if given a challenge for which they are not prepared or well suited. Having a well-developed skill set is, unfortunately, not sufficient to guarantee success.”

One good example of that axiom can be found in Martin Russ’ classic book Breakout about the hellish 80-mile retreat of the First Marine Division and Army units of the X Corps from the Chosin Reservoir back to the port of Hungnam in the brutal winter of 1950 during the Korean War.

Russ – a veteran of that terrible conflict – related an episode involving Major Edwin Simmons of the 3rd Battalion, First Marine Regiment at a grim place called East Hill. While planning the hill’s defenses to ward off a soon-to-be-expected attack by the Chinese (who’d been counterattacking across the Yalu River, separates North Korea and China, with tens of thousands of troops) Simmons encountered an Army lieutenant leading an 11-man platoon.

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The lieutenant told Simmons he’d just been assigned to defend a section of East Hill – but had no idea how to do it, since his was a signal detachment, not a combat unit. So he asked Major Simmons – who’d been blooded more than a few times fighting the Japanese in World War II – if he could share some pointers.

“Would you be willing to operate under a Marine enlisted man?” Simmons asked the Army lieutenant, who replied he’d be grateful for any and all help. In the end, the lieutenant and his 11-man Army platoon had their defensive positions laid out under the command of a Marine gunnery sergeant – and they successfully held their part of the line.

While he remains nameless, that lieutenant exhibited exceptional leadership in a tough spot – no doubt saving both his troops and others that relied on them for the hill’s defense – by his willingness to ask for help and follow directions from someone who he outranked yet who had far more critical experience in the matter at hand. Indeed, Russ noted in his book that Major Simmons was “touched by the lieutenant’s frank request for help.”

The upshot is simply this: while any situation may seem daunting, making the right leadership decisions can help anyone – be they an Army signal detachment or trucking company – overcome them in the end.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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