Be A Leader, Not A Supervisor Lessons Industry Can Learn From The Military

Be a leader, not a supervisor: Lessons industry can learn from the military

March 20, 2023
Leading from the front means engaged leadership also leads from the field.

Why are some organizations better than others? Employees remember belonging to an organization that was fun and successful. They also remember awful organizations that they were eager to leave or hoped the supervisor would leave. After reviewing both types of organizations, I have concluded that leadership is the primary factor in the success or failure of an organization.

Sounds simple! Everyone knows what makes up a great organization. So why are there awful organizations out there with substandard supervision? The answer is simple: those organizations have supervisors and managers instead of leaders. The military uses leaders, not supervisors or managers. There is a huge difference in the titles and duties of a supervisor or manager versus a leader or commander. A leader not only supervises personnel, but also leads them. 

Leadership in the military

Here is one way the military defines leadership: Leadership is the cornerstone of every function and process it performs. Army Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development, defines leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” The Ranger Handbook also states, “Leadership is the most essential element of combat power; give purpose, direction, and motivation in combat.” Leaders at all levels must strive to make all those under them competent. The army identifies three categories of core leader competencies: lead, develop, and achieve.

Leadership is the most important element in the military. Army unit effectiveness varies from unit to unit, even though the equipment, soldiers, standard operating procedures, and training are consistent throughout. The main reason for this variance is leadership, although other metrics such as physical fitness and readiness play minor roles. Here are some causes of bad leadership: 

  • bad decision-making—incompetence or no vision
  • failure to make decisions
  • leader absenteeism
  • fear of leading
  • technocrat, micromanager, or tyrant behavior
  • fear of change, success, or inflexibility.

Units with engaged, qualified leadership will perform better, as they will have better trained, more prepared, and effectively functioning units with better morale. Leaders must spend most of their time with their personnel while providing them with direction and guidance. Metrics are essential for the leader to know what to measure, how to measure, and how to adjust the team to improve performance. 

I do not pretend that the military does not have bad leaders who make their units suffer until they are replaced. But leadership matters more than supervision. Leaders spend 50% or more of their time with their people while providing a unit’s mission, guidance, and vision.

Leadership at industrial sites

How does this apply in the industrial world? Put simply: Leadership matters—not supervisors, not managers. Applying the Ranger Handbook’s definition of leadership to civilian leadership: “Engaged leadership is the most essential element in our organization, as it will motivate and direct our people to achieve greater results through vision, mission, and continuous improvement.”

The impact of true leadership at industrial sites correlates to what I have seen in the military. Industrial sites with ineffective supervisors are mediocre. Even if the organization has competent personnel, in the absence of effective leadership, people and systems degrade and become less effective. Once leaders are no longer engaged with their personnel, the personnel begin to lose focus, and their performance suffers. 

What is engaged leadership? In the army, a leader (i.e., platoon leader or sergeant) must spend every moment possible with the soldiers, understanding what they are doing and the issues they encounter, working with them to improve their performance and working conditions. This cannot be done from an office if the work is in the field. Yet, most industry supervisors I have observed spend less than 5% of their time with their personnel. Supervisors might see them in the morning when the workday begins but not see them again until the start of the next workday. Meetings must not interfere with the supervisor’s ability to be with the employees. Managers of supervisors should spend 25% or more of their time at the workforce level for the same reason. 

Managers and supervisors make excuses for not being in the field or understanding what is happening there—what the military calls “ground truth.” Some organizations have managers and supervisors who appear with their workers for the “field show” visits, where they shake hands and take pictures, but no real leadership takes place. In these organizations, the tool time of the technicians is approximately 20% or less. Yet, the supervisors say with conviction that their employees are 100% fully loaded and that they need more people. 

Leadership from the field

How can a leader provide proper direction and understand the daily issues confronting those technicians? Leaders can only lead from the front by being involved in the field. The excuse of having to attend meetings and other office responsibilities is a crutch. Meetings can be moved, and other office work can be done outside the technicians’ work hours—yes, leaders have longer hours. 

  • Here is a summary of engaged leadership:
  • Lead from the front; employees will follow a leader in the field, not a metric, key performance indicator, or a general back in the office.
  • Engage leadership at all levels, including first-line supervisors, middle management, and senior executives.
  • Develop a vision of what your team will provide the organization, and provide them with a focused mission of who, what, where, when, and why with a clear picture of what success looks like. 
  • Run toward problems; leaders look for and welcome problems and go to the source to solve them. 
  • Understand the difference between problems and failures. Your people will fail; encourage them to try again.
  • Care for your team and develop them to take your place.
    • Train them.
    • Provide a vision.
    • Provide structure and room to succeed.
    • Delegate authority.
    • Get rid of bad performers.
  • Be flexible, knowing situations and people are different.
  • Give credit to your team for success and take the blame for failures.

Be a leader leading from the front with vision and guidance. Not everyone will be a General Patton, but we can all become better leaders and spend more time with our personnel. Becoming more engaged with your people, getting to know them, encouraging them, and providing guidance and vision will improve you as a leader and will improve your organization.

About the Author

Craig Cotter | P.E., CMRP

Craig Cotter, P.E., CMRP, is a mechanical engineer. He has more than 30 years of experience in reliability engineering and maintenance management. Cotter has a B.S. in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA. He is a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Contact him at [email protected].

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