Successfully Leading All Kinds of People

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

We’ve always known that subordinates have to earn their bosses respect. One of the biggest changes impacting management over the last half-century is that in increasing numbers of organizations, managers have to earn their subordinate’s respect and trust. Unless an organization is very hierarchical, respect is no longer tied to the position. In perhaps a majority of organizations today, the power to make decisions depends less on status and hierarchical position and more on trust, knowledge and influence.

We have a problem. Many managers are out of touch with their subordinates. The power of education, especially that of advanced degrees has resulted in many managers and executives who went straight from school into decision making roles without ever having had experiences working with the people who do the work in the organization’s plants and offices. This is a form of class stratification in which people who are particularly good with abstract arguments or with information technology never have experiences working with and gaining respect for the people who actually accomplish the work.

This pattern of putting people in leadership roles based on their mastery of theory and language is in strong contrast to the experiences of earlier generations of managers and executives. Older executives often served in the military because service was mandatory. Many newly commissioned officers quickly learned that the success of their unit really depended on the decisions and actions of their very experienced non-commissioned officers. Experience with the astute decisions made by the people who reported to them taught the new graduate the critical importance of experiential knowledge, innate leadership abilities, and the astute decisions made by the people who reported to them. In this way, actual experience and common sense trumped abstract theory.

Similarly, in many corporations, entry level positions in management were in manufacturing facilities. Just as the brand new Second Lieutenant learned how expert the Master Sergeant was, the brand new manager quickly came to respect the foreman. Potential managers and executives swiftly learned that the DNA of the manufacturing processes was in the collective experience of the shop people who actually built the stuff. Newly hired “bosses” quickly learned that the people they were “to give orders to” were a tough audience that had a dazzling understanding of the work they did and everything that impacted them. The new “bosses” swiftly learned they couldn’t survive – much less succeed – if they didn’t earn the respect and support of their people. That necessarily involved demonstrating respect for their subordinates knowledge, intelligence, leadership and decision making astuteness.

Earlier routes to success almost always involved tests of whether you could successfully lead all kinds of people. This was a humbling process because new “bosses” swiftly learned how dependent they were on the knowledge, skills and leadership abilities of people who just lacked the opportunity to get the educational head start that would have positioned them to climb up the management ladder. In effect, it was a reversal of the standard mentoring process in which your boss educates you.

Reverse mentoring meant new managers learned the language of the people who created value and it made it certain that young managers would never underestimate the value or abilities of the people who reported to them.

Without reverse mentoring experience, too many contemporary managers and executives have no real respect for those who report to them. Without respect for subordinates they regard “Empower People” as the name of a training program whose goal is to thwart a union organizing effort. As they don’t have personal relationships with less educated people and they don’t really work with them, they tend to be as convinced of their indispensable contribution as they remain unimpressed by the contributions of people they’ve never known, respected or understood.

Psychologically, that makes it really easy to think of employees as an expense which has to be managed, controlled and “downsized.” When management is blind to the value of subordinates and are unaware of their dependence on them, they are also blind to the high cost of thinking of employees simply as costs.

It is expensive and dangerous to minimize management’s respect for the abilities and achievements of those who did not rise to their peer level. It is in an organization’s best interests to create opportunities in which subordinates either participate as colleagues or as mentors to new managers and executives because both groups need opportunities to earn the trust and respect of each other.   When that is achieved it is possible for those positive feelings to be reciprocal.

The military seem to be the best institutions that are still committed to shaping “average” people into very successful performers. They invest in training and honing leadership skills at all levels of the organization. It is no accident that the success of the U.S. military is often the result of creative initiatives taken by non-commissioned officers who are committed to the survival of their people.   In this sense, corporate America has a lot to learn from the Armed Forces.

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