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Follow Me, or Else

By Stephen J. Heck


�Hurrah boys! We�ve got them!�   Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer


On June 25, 1876, as elements of the United States 7th Cavalry moved along the rolling ridgelines above the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory, George Armstrong Custer allegedly shouted these words to his tired troopers as he looked down on a portion of the massive Sioux and Cheyenne village spread along the banks of the river that the Sioux called the Greasy Grass.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Many Americans in 1876 viewed Mr. Custer as the most charismatic leader in American society as the nation prepared to celebrate its centennial.  Known as �General� Custer to the public, because of his rank as a bold Union cavalry officer in the American Civil War, he was being considered as a candidate for the 1876 Presidential campaign.  However, the dark side of the Custer leadership style, which was known only to those officers and troopers who served under him, was that of an unrelenting disciplinarian and narcissist who led through intimidation.  After the battle, during which Custer and over 200 troopers under his direct command were killed, many Americans asked themselves how such an apparently superb leader could allow this disaster to occur. To this day, Custer remains a controversial personality, and in many ways represents the confusion many of us have about what constitutes effective leadership within the discipline of professional business management.  Over the past two years, during one of the worst economic recessions since the 1930s, many of us are befuddled and in despair about the abysmal leadership exercised by those who we thought knew better. 

Vision, positive reinforcement, and clear communication are the essence of leadership.  Managers in any effective organization, from CEO to first line supervisor, must understand that in a highly competitive and dynamic business environment, the best employees gravitate to firms that sincerely practice, and not just proclaim these principles.  Vision is the ability of the manager to see beyond the narrow confines of the day to day, and to instead frame his or her thinking in terms of months and years. The difference between the neophyte chess player and the expert is the �visionary� ability to see four or five moves ahead instead of just one or two.  Alas, a manager�s vision is severely diminished unless it is supported by both positive reinforcement and communication skills. 

Each manager must respect the talents and contributions of every employee, and should strive to continuously demonstrate that belief as much as possible. As Malcolm Forbes said so succinctly: �Never perish a good thought.� Each manager must also communicate forthrightly with his or her employees during both the good times and the bad times, and during these particular bad times the imperative has never been greater. If a manager can�t talk about problems during a crisis, a credibility gap quickly becomes a chasm that subordinates fill with contempt.

Business organizations in this challenging decade can no longer afford intimidators and narcissists who exercise George Custer-style �leadership� that leaves organizations and their people decimated.  Leadership is hard work, but it is not mysterious.  As an ancient Chinese proverb states:

�Tell me and I�ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I�ll understand.�

Stephen J. Heck is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute.  Steve has extensive experience leading complex, multi-faceted initiatives impacting growth, operating efficiency, and overall financial performance of businesses across diverse sectors including public, private, and not-for-profit organizations. Career achievements include reengineering under-performing business operations, managing Information Technology enterprise system integration and facilitating global business expansion and growth. He has held senior positions with such organizations as WiMAX Forum; Humboldt State University, California; and Metro Regional Government, Portland, Oregon. Steve gained a B.A. from Portland State University; a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington and a Masters of Public Administration from Portland State University, Oregon. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and IEEE Member, Society on Social Implications of Technology. Since 1996 Steve has been an evaluator with the Prior Learning  Assessment  Program at Marylhurst University in Oregon, and from 1984 to 2000 Steve was  Adjunct Professor in Public Administration at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University in Oregon.

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