Circling the Wagons
After 40 years of leading US Marines to Top Business Executives, Dr. Harry has had the incredible opportunity to observe and effectively practice the art and science of leadership. From small organizations to the giant monoliths that shape the world economy, Dr. Harry has worked with many of the world’s top leaders from industry, government and academia. Over his four decades of professional activity, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge and skills for effectively leading others to breakthrough and beyond. Needless to say, he has picked up some vital practices and principles along the way. When asked to share these morsels of wisdom, he offered a story.
Imagine you are living in the late 1700s, at the time when land west of the Mississippi was unmarked. The only real population center was all the way out in California, thousands of miles away. But there was gold in California, and there was the hope of a better life. That simple dream is what motivated people to leave their jobs and the stability and security of civilized life in the East. With reckless abandon, they set out in covered wagons to make the trek across America.
You really have to pause to understand what this journey meant for those who made it, and for those who tried but didn’t. If you go back to the history books, you’ll find it wasn’t uncommon for a 16-year-old boy/man to have a 13-year-old wife and a child. Imagine at that age deciding to haul yourself from Kansas City all the way to the edge of civilization in California – after hearing all the tragic stories of wagon trains having been attacked by Indians or natural catastrophes or simple starvation.
A week-long snow storm in the Rockies had a way of dampening the hopes of certain Wagoneers. Young and old alike, were crossing over unknown territory. They were exposed to the brutal conditions of cold and heat. They had no stockpile of medicine, no doctor on staff to set a broken bone or administer treatment for any number of infections and diseases. They had to care for themselves, their horses and their wagons on the fly, hunting food and finding water along the way, always mindful of a bloody attack from a band of Indians.
Imagine the leap of faith, the courage, it took to set out on the journey – especially during the earliest days when trails were rough and unmarked, and roads were non-existent. Knowing survivability comes in numbers, the early pioneers would hook themselves together with other families, forming a long wagon train. They would pool their resources and supplies as one large family ready to brave the elements and make the journey.
Still, the most important success factor in their journey was to obtain the services of a trail boss – someone strong enough to lead a rickety band of wagons through the wilderness. Not just anyone, but someone who had been there and done that before – many times. Someone who was smart, strong and fearless. Someone with a warrior mindset and the capability to act in the face of danger.
Leading versus Managing
A wagon train needed someone who was a master horseman, trail tracker, navigator and (if necessary) a skilled marksman. He had to be logistically minded, tactically astute and physically strong. He had to possess extreme emotional fortitude, and have a superior ability to read, deal with and motivate people. Among other traits, the trail boss was highly adaptive, flexible and capable of improvising plans on the fly. He simply had to be such a person, because the lives and destiny of many people were dependent upon his performance as a leader.
Placed side by side against a trail-boss type leader, we can make a list of traits for those we would call managers. These are people who are goal-oriented, politically astute, budget-minded, empathetic and always diplomatic. They don’t bark out orders and say “follow me or die.” They hold down the fort once it has been conquered. They maintain the trail after it has been forged. They create policies and procedures, and they ensure compliance to them. They don’t carry informal forms of power too well, and they value the peace that comes with predictability. They aren’t risk-takers, and they shy away from those who might actually rock the boat in favor of those who just talk about it. The question is this. Who would you want to shepherd your business wagon train through uncharted territory – a manager or a leader?
For corporations, Six Sigma is uncharted territory because it constitutes quantum change for which there is no beaten trail or map. There’s just an organization (a series of wagon trains), the constituency of which is simply seeking a better life for themselves, their customers and their shareholders. If you are a CEO, are you going to choose your best manager to lead the effort, or are you going to choose your best leader? If you want to be successful, and do more good than harm, you will choose your best leader. Your best leader.
What happened when a wagon train, deep in the wilderness, came under attack by Indians? What did the trail boss do then? He stopped and circled the wagons into a defensive position. He had already made everyone carry a gun whether they wanted to or not. This was the time he gave people the extra courage they needed to use their guns, and when he instilled a sense of survival by implementing battle tactics. And when the battle was over, the trail boss tended to the wounded, loaded them into the wagons and moved on. In short, he brought all he had to bear on ensuring the survival of as many as possible.
Love of the Journey
Despite the emotions, the pain of tribulation along the way, losing people and losing wagons – the trail boss went back to Kansas City and picked up the next caravan. The Wagoneers only made the trip once, but the trail boss made the trip over and over and over again, because the thrill of victory (and the rewards) was stronger than the fear of defeat. That’s exactly how it was for Don Linsenmann as he led one DuPont business through the corporate wilderness, and as he returned time and time again to help lead the others. There were 18 in all, and each journey was its own separate story of promise, peril, agony and victory.
That’s also exactly how Dr. Harry and his Six Sigma Academy partner Mr. Richard Schroeder made their journeys. They did it corporation after corporation, giving up weekends, vacations, time with their children. Why did they do it? After 18 years of trail-bossing, Dr. Harry says he did it because it was the right thing to do, the best thing to do, the only thing to do. He is also quick to point out that it made for one hell of a payday.
The beauty now is that the Six Sigma trail is paved and well marked. It’s not primitive and treacherous, as it used to be. First there was a trail, then a railroad, then a road and now a superhighway. So what excuse do corporations have today for not making the Six Sigma journey and for not staking their claim to dramatically improved performance? The folks like Don Linsenmann (DuPont), Phong Vu (Ford), Gary Reiner (GE) and the rest – the exemplary senior Champions – have paved the way. A corporation deploying Six Sigma today assumes much less risk than these leaders did.
When Dr. Harry thinks about whether he would retrace his career if he had it to do over, he doesn’t immediately come forth with a resounding yea or nay. He paid a heavy personal toll in terms his family, not seeing his children grow up and not participating in many of the life experiences a credit card commercial would call “priceless.” Still, if he could turn the clock back, he would do it all over again, because “that’s just me.” As with all passionate leaders, Dr. Harry is simply wired to be excessively ambitious and, even more so, he feels dead if he isn’t changing something that most people think can’t be changed.
Leaders are like actors who don’t feel like themselves if they aren’t regularly on stage. If a leader doesn’t have an initiative to lead, she will go find one. If she can’t find one in the company for which she works, she will go find another company for which to work. It’s that simple. You don’t take a bird that doesn’t fly with the flock and try to make it do so. Its nature is to explore uncharted territory, then return with a flock of its own.
Leaders are looking to penetrate the riches that lie in the new land, and they expect to be rewarded for doing so. That’s the lesson for the CEO. If you want to hang on to your Six Sigma leaders, you better put their pictures on the corporate wall of fame, and you better acknowledge them in every possible way for what they do for you, your company, your customers and your shareholders.
Behind every corporation that implements Six Sigma and fails is a weak leader – or more accurately a non-leader. Certainly at this point in time, there is no lack of knowledge and know-how about Six Sigma. As well, a lack of resources is not an excuse for failure, because a good leader will always find ways to get the resources he needs. It’s all about adaptation and improvisation. The only test is survival, especially initial survival. If a Champion successfully leads one business unit across the deserts, plains and mountains, he will surely return to lead another and another, and will be rewarded for doing so. But if he fails at first, he will become known as the one person who caused the initiative to falter.
We should mention that, while rank is very important in formal organizational structures, it is totally unimportant in the firestorm of rapid change brought about by Six Sigma. Rank provides a sense of order and identity in times of stability, but it does not lead people through intense trials and tribulations. In times of instability and grave uncertainty, a corporation needs someone to engender faith, trust and belief that it will overcome the challenge at hand. Rank is just a placeholder; it has no innate or assumed ability to lead in times of crisis, or even in times of moderate instability.
There is no such thing as a bad follower. There are only bad leaders. And leadership is not generally an ability with which a person is born. It is a skill that is learned over time and motivated by unrest. Can all people lead? No. You can teach certain elements of leadership, but you cannot teach the synergy of bringing those elements together with one’s will, spirit and values. Only the individual person can bring the elements together into a personalized formula that yields a strong leader.
Leaders and Anti-Leaders
We must remember that the bell curve applies to the strength of leadership. Only a small fraction of people out on the right edge of the curve are fit to be super-ordinate leaders. Inversely, there is a small group of people on the far left who will oppose change as vehemently as leaders promote positive change. They are the anti-leaders, the antagonizors who have the strength of a leader but who direct that strength in a negative direction. They are counter-change, counter-aim, counter-leaders – and they are the ones who must be defeated. Their base of power must be drained and their aims must be blurred.
You can’t move the mass of a corporation by trying to change the glut of people in the middle of the bell curve. Well, you can, but it requires an enormous measure of effort – much more than is necessary. After all, these people are in the middle for a reason. Instead, the best strategy for a Champion is to identify the anti-leaders and disable them through the implementation of superior logic, reason, tactics and demonstration. If you do this, and at the same time pull the leaders even farther to the right, the mass in the middle will naturally readjust itself to close the gap and reestablish a new center of performance. That’s how you decisively move the mass of a corporation and generate breakthrough: by neutering the reproductive ability of the anti-change agents and by reinforcing the leadership actions of the positive change agents.
Still, this is not to say that the leader doesn’t have a responsibility to keep the troops fed, focused and motivated. Sometimes, the people in a wagon train would become demoralized by severe conditions and events. At those times, the trail boss had to pull a rabbit out of his hat — literally, if the source of demoralization was a lack of food. While all the families sit around the campfire, hoping and shivering, the trail boss goes out and gets some buffalo to eat. Wherever the crisis falls on Maslow’s hierarchy, the leader is responsible for restoring faith and hope among those who follow.
As a leader, sometimes you have to remove fear, while other times you have to instill fear. Sometimes you create a sense of urgency, while other times you make people relax. You sometimes make people relax when they think they should be tense, and you make them tense when they think they should relax. In other words, corporate leadership is as much a mental game as it is a resource game.
Leadership is also a game of history and destiny – having a sense of both and knowing how to mentally draw a line and link the two in a rational and credible way. What and where are the behaviors that embody the past and keep a corporation from seizing its future? What are the behaviors and where are the people who embody change and foreshadow a corporation’s next major destination? Shape the future and free it from the gravity of the past.
The Buck Stops Here
A Six Sigma Champion recognizes that new questions beget new direction. As new questions emerge, ambiguity diminishes. As ambiguity diminishes, direction becomes clear. And as direction becomes clear, people can be mobilized toward a common cause.
In the final analysis, a Six Sigma leader often forces others to confront their faulty beliefs and values. The effective leader then provides the vision, direction, inspiration and support for adopting new beliefs and values. Planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, directing, coaching, controlling and reporting are just some of the activities a leader engages in to fashion the mold for a new value system. But it is the magic of leadership that fills the mold and solidifies the determination of all who would follow to form a new and better organization. As difficult and elusive as leadership can be, this is its core essence.
Anyone who can create this magic is a leader. Leaders create magic; magic does not create leaders. And those who employ leaders should use this as their single selection criterion: can the person do magic? Can he or she manufacture smoke and wield mirrors for the purpose of buying time until the deployment-and-implementation machine is designed, produced and enabled? Then, once enabled, can he or she decisively penetrate the new frontier and bring home the gold, time and time again?
In this sense, those who enlist leaders are by definition equal opportunity employers. There is no discrimination based on education, experience, physical stature and so on. Leaders come black, white, tall, short, thin, fat, male, female, bald, hairy, fun, boring, moody, level, scrappy, polished, single, married, divorced, gay, introverted, extroverted, dot, dot, dot. But no matter who they are, leaders have to be magicians – masters of smoke and mirrors. This is the only dimension upon which a corporation must discriminate when installing its Six Sigma leaders.
There was a sign on the desk of a Marine Colonel that said “I am they.” lam they. The buck stops right here. That’s the aura of responsibility the leader assumes, especially when it’s embarrassing and difficult. Slow to take credit and quick to take blame. That’s what the Six Sigma leader does. That’s what Don Linsenmann of DuPont has done and continues to do. He creates synergy between the aim of his company and the management system called Six Sigma. He’s the one person in a very large corporation who unites the power of Six Sigma with the ideal of business success. He’s the one person, even though thousands have played their roles very well, who generated the magnetism and force required to move a mass the size of DuPont. Linsenmann is the organizational magician who pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the corporate hat.
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Business Email: Mikel.Harry@SS-MI.com
Copyright 2013 Dr. Mikel J. Harry, Ltd.