You Don’t Have to a Supervisor to be a Leader

Posted on February 11, 2017

By Dan Biles, Jefferson County, AL, Deputy County Manager, LinkedIn & Twitter

Recently, I spoke about leadership at the Alabama City County Management Association Conference. Here’s a copy of the presentation: Play Chess not Checkers. In this article, I highlight key points from the presentation that can help your organization.

In local government, we talk about management related issues and those are very important, but we neglect an even more critical topic: leadership. Everyone reading this is a leader – you don’t have to be a “supervisor” to be a leader. We are leaders in our homes, communities and outside groups. The questions is are we “good/great” leaders.

“Play Chess not Checkers” — I first heard this quote while on active duty in the Air Force. We used it to reinforce strategically thinking as opposed to tactical thinking.

I’ll use the framework from Mark Miller’s 2015 book, Chess not Checkers, Elevate Your Leadership Game to talk about critical leadership principles. Local government is good at elements two and four, but struggle with elements one and three, so I spend more time on those two.

  1. Bet on leadership
  2. Act as One
  3. Win the heart
  4. Excel at Execution

I. Bet on Leadership (slides 3-6)

Develop your pieces early for maximum strategic advantage…You cannot be a great organization without great leadership. All the moves are critical but this is the first among equals. Leadership growth precedes organizational growth.

Before I get into John Maxwell’s Five Levels of Leadership (I also discussed here), I want to discuss the three other quotes from the 3rd slide:

The true meaning on leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less. – John Maxwell

Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. Tom Peters

You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. RDML Grace Hopper (go read her wiki bio).

Many people (even the military) have trouble defining leadership. John Maxwell uses my favorite definition which is “influence.” People do not have to follow you, even if you are the boss. The number one reason people leave good jobs is their supervisor. Conversely, we’ve seen situations where the “leader” in the room isn’t the one nominally in charge.

As Rdml Hopper says, you have to “lead” people, not “manage” them. Treating people like they are interchangeable parts or widgets will drive them away.

Our number one task as leaders is to develop more leaders says Tom Peters. If you want more time for strategic thinking, develop leaders who can accomplish tasks that you are now having to do. This involves trust. You must trust people before they will trust you.

The best performing organizations develop leaders throughout their organization. We should work to reach 4th stage of leadership, where we produce leaders on our teams. In the military, we constantly worked our succession plans. When I was the commander of one unit, we developed a 10-year succession plan. Did it go perfectly, according to plan? No, life happens, but it guided us in developing opportunities for growing leaders.

We can learn about leadership from science, but the application is art. Each of us approach similar situations differently and that’s just fine.

One of my worries about the idea of leadership is when it becomes this weighty, abstract concept, something talked about in the tones of Greek and Roman artifacts, something that is out of reach for most, yet permanent once obtained. This worries me because leadership should be understood as something practiced and refined, often without commission or reward and sometimes done unconsciously. Many people simply go about their lives with purpose, integrity and camaraderie — that can be leadership without the concept ever being uttered…Leading is not separate from living, and that means there is no template or fixed end to the journey. – James daSilva


As an aside, Tom Peter’s wrote an excellent book that every leader should read: In Search of Excellence. I occasionally flip through his Powerpoints and presentation notes…

This graphic from Steve Keating outlines – What does a leader does vs. how a manager acts?

On slide 6, I discuss an article published in 2012 by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?.” Here are a few quotes from the article:

Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at “nurturing” competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.

But the women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.

Specifically, at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths. As it happened, men outscored women significantly on only one management competence in this survey — the ability to develop a strategic perspective.

Key Point #1: Women are better “natural” leaders than men.  Men need more training in the skills that they are lacking in order to reach where women start.

When Credit Suisse looked at women in senior management roles, senior teams of more than 15%  females had a return on equity of 14.7%, compared to a 9.7% return from teams will less than 10% females. Bottom-line, the greater the ratio of women in leadership in the organization, the better it performs.

Another recent European study demonstrated that women led companies are more risk-adverse and more profitable over the long-term.

What does this mean for local government? More than half of local government employees are female, only  around 15% are city or county managers (CAOs). That’s a problem. By the way, Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) has been doing great work on this issue.

Key Point #2: We need to be intentional about career development of women in our organizations.

For example, I let all my direct reports and others know that if there is a conflict between family needs and what I need, I don’t expect to them to pick the organization’s needs (there are rare exceptions). I disagree with those who believe work trumps everything else. In my experience, when family life is suffering, work productivity decreases.

You might be thinking, “Dan, you want to be a city manager, doesn’t hamper you in reaching your goal?” My answer is an emphatic NO. Whether it’s me or someone else getting hired, we should want to hire the best possible person and if we ignore the need for employees to balance work and life, we are doing a disservice to our community. I have two daughters and two sons. I want each of them to compete fairly and equitably in their chosen career field. My wife is finishing a PhD in behavioral neuroscience (that she put on hold for ~24 years) and I want the same for her.

II. Act as One

Local government knows why it exists and what’s important (delivering efficient municipal services to the citizens). The breakdown occurs between elected officials and appointed leadership and those doing the work (road crews, customer service reps., admin help). See Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” TED Talk

An excerpt from this post:

The Department consistently had almost 200 active projects at any one time…I then began meeting with all the employees in their teams and we walked through how their piece of the puzzle impacted the quality and timeliness of the work we delivered for their friends and family. For example, we took a item like the agenda back-up documentation and showed how, when it is clear and precisely explains the contract in layperson terms what role this specific contract would play in meeting the Council goals, how our procedures met the City/State procurement laws and how it was accounted for in the budget, this builds confidence in Council and senior leadership of how the Department is efficiently and effectively managing its work. This then results in better project delivery for our customers, the Operating Departments, and eventually the citizens of Corpus Christi. Basically we connected their actions, that piece of paper for instance that had to move from point A to point B, with the newly paved street or improved park…a tangible result of their work.

We connected the organizational “why” with the individual’s desire to help their neighbor (their “why”).

Once these teams understood how their small piece impacted the overall performance of the City in how it delivered services to the public and that they were empowered to improve how they did their work, the ideas started flowing and customer connections and productivity skyrocketed. In fact, there were so many good ideas we had to slow down the rate of change to keep the train from running off the tracks.

III. Win the Heart” (slides 9-12)

Great organizations are ones that create a place in which people willingly invest themselves fully in the work of the organization.

The U.S. Conference Board conducts an annual survey on job satisfaction. Pay and benefits has never ranked in the top five of most important parts of job sanctification. It’s about more than pay. It’s about whether your people enjoy what they do and in order to enjoy it, they need to be (in their mind) making an impact (the why).

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” – Richard Branson

“Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.” – Herb Kelleher

Gallup tracks employee engagement in the US, and it stands around 32% and in local/state government is it actually lower at ~29%.

People have higher needs that leadership is ignoring. People are happier during their commute than they are at the office.

Engagement is a decision of the heart, you, the leader have to decide to connect with people at that level.

Building employee engagement requires a degree of personal tailoring; leaders must identify what’s important to each individual worker and put to use their unique and often hidden talents. Making time to honor and acknowledge people for their effort and contributions is the final requirement.” – Lead from the Heart by Mark C. Crowley

“We suspect that the best kept secret of successful leaders is love: Being in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what the organizations produce and those who honor the organization by using its work. Leadership is an affair of the heart, not the head.” – The Leadership Challenge by James Kouses and Barry Posner.

Stock returns of the top 100 employers annually exceeded their peers by 7% to 8%

Barry Chapman,CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, practices “Truly Human Leadership.

  1. Because 7 out of 8 people believe the company they work for does not care about them.
  2. Because everybody should have the opportunity to use their gifts and talents toward a shared vision.
  3. Because people should not be merely a means to a company’s financial success.
  4. Because people want to be led, not managed.
  5. Because everyone deserves the chance to return home from work each day feeling fulfilled by the work that they do.

Check out his book “Everybody Matters.” One of the quotes from his book that really hits home is that:

“The people are just fine; it’s our leadership that’s lacking.” – Bob Chapman

In local government, we don’t always have the best human talent management processes. When don’t enter an organization, fire top talent, and start over. We work with the existing team.

IV. Excel at Execution (slides 12-13)

Greatness hinges on execution

Measure what matters most

In local government, we talk performance metrics and execution a lot, but are we measuring the right things? Or as Tom Peters says, are we “celebrating what we want to see more of?”

If we believe in engaged, connected employees, what should we be measuring? Are we responsive if it’s just an annual survey or should you work to get a better more real-time idea of how your employees are connecting at work.

While data is useful, anecdotal evidence is also important. How often is your executive team out of the office in the field meeting with your lower level teams. “Leadership by walking about” getting out of the office and talking to your teams. There is a reason most senior level commanders in the military spend an inordinate amount of time out of the office on the road meeting their units. It keeps them grounded in whats going on and relays to the soldiers the leaders value their work.

I’ll leave you with this…This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. – Winston Churchill

Make it a good end of the beginning…

Dan Biles, P.E. is the Deputy County Manager – Infrastructure for Jefferson County, Al. Dan has over 30 years of leading a wide spectrum of military, private business and local government teams. At each step along the way in his career, his teams have been consistently recognized as the best in the organization, region and have even won national “best of the best” awards. From his time in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University where he earned his B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering.

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