Insights to Leadership

Successful managers follow simple practices such as these to inspire co-workers and lead their companies to success.


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I recently read a management book—something I believe we should all do once in a while. Reading books of this type can inspire us to evaluate how we deal with others, and they can even provide ideas to help us be more effective in our interactions with co-workers.

In this book, “The Leadership Challenge,” authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner studied leaders of all types and concluded that the most successful continually follow five practices:

Model the way. Act in a way that you expect others to act or set the right example.

Inspire a shared vision. Establish a clear vision of the results you expect and ensure that everyone understands the importance of this vision.

Challenge the process. Create a climate for trying things to make an existing process better.

Enable others to act. Understand that no leader can do everything alone and get others to contribute to success.

Encourage the heart. Recognize others for their contributions and show appreciation whenever possible.

Kouzes and Posner present unique examples of how successful leaders employ each of these practices, and I want to offer some of my own.

I have worked with a number of leaders who really do “model the way” and pitch in when something important needs to be done. During one workplace event, the general manager got involved and even used a fork truck to relocate machines. This certainly showed this leader’s commitment to the organization’s effort and inspired other participants. In another continuous improvement event, a team was struggling to develop ideas for simplifying the setup of its machines. It turned out that their manager started his career running this type of machine, and he offered some suggestions based on the issues he had when he was an operator. The team fed off the manager’s suggestions and came up with some clever ideas that significantly reduced setup time.

In terms of “inspiring a shared vision,” I have witnessed leaders clearly spell out what their company needed to do to be successful. One company president stated that the company would not automatically refuse a request for an expedited delivery, but would do everything it could to meet the needs of its customer. Every request would be evaluated before a response was given, so even when a request for an expedited delivery could not be accommodated, the customer felt the company had really tried to meet its needs.

Another leader stated his vision that the company’s products would continue to be the best in the industry. It was important for every employee to believe this if the company was to meet the challenge of lower-priced competition from overseas and for the entire workforce to build quality into every product sent to customers.

I have known leaders who were willing to challenge the process by thinking outside the box and enlisting others to do the same. One company had an outstanding shipping operation, but the director of operations thought that there was opportunity for improvement. The operation experienced delays due to missing or incorrect information, but the director made it clear that the shipping department was not solely responsible for problems. The defensiveness so common in improvement efforts was set aside, and people from different departments worked together to improve the entire process.

In order to enable others to act, leaders need to display trust in their employees. Nobody wants to assume added responsibility if the risk of doing so far exceeds the rewards that can be realized. One company leader was very good at establishing continuous improvement teams within the organization. The teams were formed with representatives from different areas and given authority to make needed changes. Goals required collaboration, such as a housekeeping and safety team’s goal for plant-wide improvement. Improvement in just one or two areas was not enough. Team members could not claim success solely for their own areas, but worked for improvement in all areas.

I have seen leaders “encourage the heart” in a number of ways. Although there are many types of rewards, the most meaningful seem to be those that demonstrate true caring for the employee. One owner of a small machine shop took the time to personally thank any employee who accomplished something beyond the norm. He always did this in a very conspicuous manner, making sure that the employee’s co-workers would see it. Although not a monetary or material reward, the action taken by the leader made the employee feel special. Another leader would recognize a department or work center for outstanding performance with a pizza lunch each month. Although he used objective metrics to select the area, he asked the area to select one other department in the company to share in the lunch. This recognized top performers and fostered relationship-building between departments at the same time.

These instances exemplify how effective leaders can use simple techniques to inspire
their co-workers and achieve success for their companies.