Up Your Business - January/February - 2021

Follow the Leader

Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature where I share stories, insights, and reflections about business and life.

My college major was business/economics. Before graduating, we were required to either submit a typewritten, 10,000-word paper or stand before a panel of business professors for an oral exam. Everyone feared the oral exam because the professors could ask questions on any aspect of your major. There simply, was no good way to prepare for it. I chose the oral exam because, believe it or not, I didn’t like writing back then. Of course, that’s changed over the years.

Anyhow, after what felt like an inquisition, the department chairman met with me to tell me that I’d passed and would be approved to graduate. He asked me if I had any plans to continue my education. I told him I was thinking about pursuing an MBA – Master of Business Administration. What he said next changed my life. He said, “Actually, I thought you might say that. However, based on your responses, I’d advise you to pursue an MPA – Master of Public Administration. I don’t think you’re ruthless enough to succeed in business. You’d be better suited for government work. You don’t have the ‘go for the jugular’ instincts to succeed in the business world.”

Even with my youthful naivety, I realized he was a pompous academic – an idiot. I remember thinking that this “business” professor probably had never worked a day in the business world. I wondered how he ever came to lead the business department.

That day, I decided that I would prove him wrong. I didn’t know how, where, or when, but I’d succeed in business. Additionally, I’d do it without being ruthless or cutthroat, but instead with kindness and by out-serving the competition – treating people right. I didn’t know it then, but a leadership style called “Servant Leadership” was just gaining popularity at that time. I’ve spent my career pursuing that objective and surrounding myself with like-minded people.

I started with this story because this article is about leadership – the kind of leadership that’s worthy of emulation.

Additionally, it also provides the perfect opportunity to give a shoutout to our Leader, ATRA CEO, Dennis Madden. Dennis recently published a book called Follow the Loser – How Abject Failures Can Lead a Revolution. It exposes the leadership secrets of nine of the most ruthlessly contemptible leaders of the past two centuries. He examines how the likes of Hitler, Marx, Mussolini, and cult leaders like Charles Manson and Jim Jones deceived their followers while gaining their support. It’s available online in hardback, paperback, and digital download versions. Congratulations Dennis!

Whenever somebody begins a conversation with the phrase, “Back in the day,” it’s likely that they’re a “Baby Boomer.” So, back in the day, after school or after dinner, we used to play outdoor games like Kick the Can, Mother May I, Tag, and Follow the Leader. If you’re part of the post-baby boomer generations, you may have never heard of these games, let alone played them.

Follow the Leader was a game in which everyone tried to mimic the actions of the leader. If you couldn’t or didn’t do whatever the leader did, you were eliminated, and the last person remaining got to be the next leader. Looking back on it, it sounds silly and too simple, but somehow, it entertained us for hours, and it led to lots of laughter and harmless teasing.

Interestingly, leadership transitions in organizations are like the Follow the Leader game. Whoever does the best job of mimicking the current leader gets to be next. Whether that’s a good thing depends on the previous leader, doesn’t it? That may answer the question of how that professor became the department chairman. I wonder about those who came after him.

Have you ever wondered what makes some leaders more effective than others? Leadership experts agree that there are 10 commonly occurring leadership styles. However, because many of these styles share several common traits, the lines between them are blurry. To establish context, I’ll cover just two of the ten types – Autocratic and Servant. These two rather broad styles represent the extremes of the leadership-style spectrum, with approximately half of the remaining styles leaning towards one or the other.

In small businesses like transmission and auto repair shops, the leader’s role is, by default, usually filled by the owner, who’s often the manager, as well. Owner, manager, and leader aren’t mutually compatible roles.

In fact, managing and leading are two totally different roles with different objectives. Managers focus on achieving predetermined results by meeting goals and maintaining the status quo within policies and procedures. On the other hand, leaders determine the direction, set the goals, and drive change. Owners who try to wear both hats will often become frustrated and are viewed by their employees as bosses rather than leaders. As you read on, you’ll see some possible reasons this occurs.

Just like the game, most of us follow in the footsteps of a leader or role model. We might not even be aware of it but take a minute and reflect. Who’s the leader you’re following? Who’s your role model? Why that person? I’ll bet you don’t view your role model as a boss. You probably view them more as your mentor, coach, or cheerleader. Now, let’s look at two leadership styles.

Autocratic Leaders are authoritarian, focusing on results. They place a high value on adherence to policies, procedures, standards, and performance. Autocratic leadership is process-driven, top-down leadership. Under this style, employees often think of the leader as the boss. This type of leader focuses mainly on efficiency and results. They often make decisions alone and expect employees to do things exactly as they’re asked or told to do them or how the leader does it.

Like military commanders, Autocratic leaders think in terms of top-down authority. Relationships with these types of leaders tend to be subjective, transactional, and/or bureaucratic – all of which are leadership styles that lean towards the Autocratic style.

Autocratic leadership can be useful in organizations with strict guidelines or compliance constraints. It can also be beneficial with employees who need close supervision, such as those with little to no experience. However, this leadership style may stifle creativity and make employees feel restricted. Autocratic leaders are self-confident, self-motivated, goal-focused, dependable, communicate clearly, love policies and procedures, prefer supervised work environments, and value performance over relationships.

While autocratic leaders promote productivity through compliance and making decisions independently, this leadership style can cause stress for the leader, who bears all the weight of decision making. Additionally, the leader’s rigidness and lack of interest in hearing others’ ideas can cause resentment within the team.

Shop owners who try to wear both hats – the leader and the manager, often default to one or more of the Autocratic styles. You can change that by delegating one of the roles. Appointing someone to the management role is most common. Another way would be to get the team involved in sharing the leadership role. If you read this month’s Shop Profile, you’ll see how John Hunter of Northampton Transmission has done both.

Servant Leadership is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Autocratic. My interview with John Hunter preceded writing Northampton’s Shop Profile on page 50 of this GEARS issue. I encourage you to read it because John is an excellent example of a Servant Leader. Like many Servant Leaders, John didn’t even think of himself as being one.

While Autocratic leaders share characteristics of several of the process-driven styles, Servant Leaders share aspects of what I’ll call relationship-driven leadership styles.

So, what the heck is Servant Leadership? The key traits, characteristics, and techniques of Servant Leadership have been widely used for thousands of years. But the term “Servant Leader” first surfaced in 1970 in Robert Greenleaf’s essay, The Servant as Leader.

Since then, this leadership philosophy has exploded in popularity, with many books written, seminars presented, and increased attention by media and business experts. Two of the most famous proponents are Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, authors of The One Minute Manager and several other related books. Other well-known advocates include the likes of Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, John Maxwell, and GEARS contributor, Jim Cathcart.

Many people have tried to define what Servant Leader means. Why not go with Greenleaf’s definition since he came up with it in the first place? He said, “The Servant Leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. It’s a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”

What does this mean? It means growth and well-being of employees and stakeholders. In addition to owners and investors, the term stakeholders includes internal and external customers, the community, suppliers, and anyone the company touches. Servant Leaders seek to help the people they serve grow as individuals and become Servant Leaders as well. This cycle of positive service is self-perpetuating, leading to exceptional performance on all levels.

Servant Leaders have a people-first mindset and believe that when team members feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they’re more effective and likely to produce excellent work. Because of the emphasis on collaboration, they tend to enjoy higher levels of respect and get better results.

Servant Leaders have the capacity to boost employee loyalty and productivity, improve employee development, improve decision-making, build trust, and create future leaders.

However, Servant Leaders can become burnt-out by putting the needs of others above their own. They may have a hard time being authoritarian when required, potentially putting themselves and the company’s goals at risk. It’s essential to strike a balance between serving and leading. Don’t be a doormat but be a doorway.

You might be a Servant Leader if you have the skills and desire to motivate, communicate, listen, encourage, collaborate, support, guide, mentor, and coach. However, this must be balanced with protecting your business by correcting and redirecting employees when needed, and being self-aware, taking care of your needs.

You probably feel that I believe Servant Leadership is preferable to Autocratic Leadership. However, I believe neither is right, better, wrong, or worse. Both are right under different circumstances. And if you read Dennis Madden’s book, you’ll see that they can also be used to achieve negative ends.

If you’re feeling like the Servant Leadership style doesn’t suit you, that’s a typical first response. For some reason, many in our industry find it difficult to talk about the softer side of things like feelings and relationships. We like putting hard measures on hard values.

It’s difficult to put hard measures on soft values. Robert Greenleaf put it this way, “The best test… is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” In other words, influential Servant Leaders are driven by developing more Servant Leaders.

In retrospect, that college professor drove me to choose a path of Servant Leadership – not as a role model but quite the opposite. However, since that time, I’ve chosen role models who reinforced my view of how it should be.

I confess that my biggest weakness was not being autocratic when it was required. This led to burnout, health problems, and my early retirement from shop ownership.

However, during my 25-years at the helm of my transmission business, we developed Servant Leaders. Over 25 employees went on to own their own businesses or to become Servant Leaders in other organizations. In fact, the current owner of my shop started as an unpaid, work-experience intern from the local high school auto shop. His first job was cleaning the shop, and 25 years later, he bought it. He’s just celebrated 15 years as the owner.

If you haven’t already read the Shop Profile on page 50, be sure to read it. I believe that you’ll find John Hunter’s story encouraging and inspiring.


About the Author

Thom Tschetter has served our industry for nearly four decades as a management and sales educator. He owned a chain of award-winning transmission centers in Washington State for over 25 years.

He calls on over 30 years of experience as a speaker, writer, business consultant, and certified arbitrator for topics for this feature column.

Thom is always eager to help you improve your business and your life. You can contact him by phone at (480) 773-3131 or e-mail to coachthom@gmail.com.