Leading without managing can run a company off the road

“What’s the matter? Afraid of the dark?”

Dave Millhouser

After driving 24 hours or so, I had just whined to my boss, Joe, that I was getting a bit weary and was hoping for a relief driver.

There were only another 200 or so miles left on this jaunt east from Colorado, and golly gee whiz, we didn’t have any spare drivers.

Joe himself had been awake for 36 hours dealing with crises sprinkled across the interstates, so he was implying that I should “man up” and finish the trip.

This was in the 1960s and we were an ICC-exempt nonprofit hauling high school kids cross-country to Christian camps. We were “lawful” if not wise, and operated in a way that would be seriously illegal today.

In a mostly irrelevant aside, in the years we operated, the only injury related to millions of passenger miles was a broken toe. One girl was waving goodbye to the driver after a trip, and somehow didn’t notice the drive wheel until it squished her toe.

Our drivers were highly motivated, young and either lucky or blessed.

We managed to pull this off, for a couple of years, because we were extremely well led. Joe outworked us and never asked us to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.

He always had our back and, as a result, we would do anything for him.

In addition, it was sort of a handpicked crew. Virtually every one was a leader, too.

We trusted each other almost to a fault, and 50 years later many of us are still close (and at least a dozen of us infested the bus industry for years). Our gang was a picture postcard of inspired leadership.

And we failed.

Ultimately the parent organization came to the conclusion that we would never be economically viable, so they sold the buses and began using charter companies.

Pardon the misplaced metaphor, but we missed the boat by not understanding the difference between leadership and management.

We had terrific people, but lacked the system to manage them and to make sure they and the equipment were consistently in the right place. Our solution to most problems was to work harder, which only carried us so far (pun intended).

Ten years later, while working for a coach manufacturer, I saw the same dichotomy rear its ugly head again.

We had some of the best tech reps in the industry, and their response to emergencies was phenomenal. They were allowed to pull parts off the assembly line when necessary and flew people and parts all over the country — anything to get a customer up and running.

The president himself once worked an entire Sunday to solve an electrical problem on a new coach.

The trouble was, we had a flawed system in place to manage support. Parts were often back-ordered and minor service issues languished in the bureaucracy until they became catastrophic.

The aftermarket parts manager figured he could keep his inventory expense artificially low by using the assembly line as his piggy bank.

Customers quickly learned they couldn’t trust our system, but they could trust our people, so every problem became a “crisis.”

Our biggest competitor had a support system that ground slowly, but reliably. Customers could count on them and didn’t declare an emergency every time they blew a light bulb.

They’re still in business.

There’s a necessary balance between leadership/personal initiative and managing through a system. You can have the best people in the world and lead them well, but without a system they will eventually fail.

It works the other way too. Coloring books have made a comeback, but filling in the spaces with the correct crayon doesn’t make you an artist.

Slavish commitment to managing through a system won’t work either. Doubt it? Think back to the last time you were at the registry. Customers don’t like being mashed into conformity.

The trick seems to be designing a mechanism that reliably handles normal tasks but allows your people to use initiative when mechanical, often defensive, actions get in the way.

Leadership and management are two different but overlapping disciplines. Neither is a goal, but rather a tool used to move toward what is best for your business.

In 1967 my boss let me pull on my bussy big boy pants for the first time and drive a bus alone from Atlantic City to Baltimore.

Seated behind me were 40 trusting kids. Heading out of town, I smoothly accelerated onto the Garden State Parkway, rolling confidently south. I got all the way to the end before realizing that I should have taken the turnpike.

I led/drove those kids safely to Cape May. My driving skills passed muster, but managing the trip better (in the form of reading the map) might have gotten them where they wanted to go — Baltimore.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.





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