I’m reading Arthur Herman’s wonderful new book, Freedom’s Forge, which is the story of how America’s greatest industrial minds transformed the sleepy manufacturing base in America into the greatest war-time production system in history, literally saving the Allies from losing World II. It’s the story of men starting with nothing, going on to build GM, the Hoover Dam, and eventually a wartime manufacturing complex that outproduced the Axis powers into submission. All while fighting the incessant interference of ‘the system’ (aka Washington, D.C.).
It’s also filled with gems of wisdom that today’s leaders might apply towards growing their organizations to peak performance. One such advice was given to Bill Knudsen, the man who turned around Chevrolet, by his mentor Bill Smith with whom he’d worked at Keim Mills. Knudsen had risen to the Vice Presidency of Chevrolet, mostly through a series of hands-on jobs, including years optimizing the assembly-line process for Henry Ford. Knudsen, quite simply, was someone who could do himself anything he asked his people to do. And he was always at the forefront of the doing, through long days and sleepless nights.
Knudsen, also a capable boxer, had a fierce temper. He was driven, and expected his men to be as well. Cross Bill Knudsen and you could end up face-down on the factory floor. Bill got things done by his hands – one way or the other.
But that wouldn’t work, of course, for someone who had become the leader of one of America’s most powerful automobile companies. Knudsen would have to do more than just push people, figuratively and literally, to peak performance. He would have to inspire them to it. Which is the advice his friend Bill Smith offered him:
“If you’re going to fight one [of your people] are you going to be ready to fight them all? … From now on you’ve got to lead, not drive.” (Herman, 35)
Knudsen took this advice to heart. He quickly transformed his leadership style from a push to a pull. He sought to attract people to higher performance, rather than simply demand it like a petulant bully. He was as driven as ever to succeed, but he focused his passion and energy into leadership, not dictatorship. He learned how to listen, rather than talking, to unlock the important feedback they could contribute. For him, leadership started by treating everyone as equal contributors to the same outcomes. It’s a lesson for many leaders today, who love to give speeches, interviews, prognostications, but never shut up long enough to listen to their customers, their own people, or even others in their own industry.
Leadership isn’t about driving your people to accept your ideas. It’s about empowering them to make your way their way. Leadership doesn’t push people to do new things, but shepherds them to break through on their own. To lead starts with articulating a vision and inviting others to take the journey with you. Leaders set the course and ensure the resources of the organization support the efforts of their people. Knudsen was at his best when he was constantly refining the assembly process to maximize the labor of every person in the factory, to make every ounce of their contribution count.
In fact, leadership eventually transcends the organization itself, affecting how people live outside of work, and society as a whole. Leaders who seek to drive others to do it their way often fail to reach success, or worse, fall from a dominant position. It’s true for all leaders: family, political, religious or social who run rough-shod over those who disagree. Eventually they lead nobody.
Smith’s advice to Knudsen is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. If you want to inspire people to greater performance, you have to lead them, not fight them. It’s a lesson desperately needed in today’s world, in business, politics, and society. Putting down the gloves, and seeking to raise someone’s sights instead, creates better outcomes for everyone. If you can learn to lead, not drive like Knudsen did, you can create the kind of results – Chevrolet outsold Ford for 60 straight years in a row – that comes from growing people, rather than driving them to do things your way. An interesting lesson from someone in an industry that went from simply driving people to work, to leading them to victory in a great struggle.