Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Leader

Alan retired recently after serving as a department head for over 25 years. It is no exaggeration to say that he became a legend in his industry.

He often joked that if you were given a photo of the top management team in his department and asked to point out the director, he'd be the last person you'd select because he didn't look the part. He was quiet and thoughtful but with a strong sense of humor. He often wore Hawaiian shirts to work, which may have been his way to telling people to be comfortable and not to take themselves so seriously.

Alan pushed innovation and listening; a great deal of listening. Mistakes were dissected in an effort not to blame but to learn. Safety was a mantra but so was kindness. His philosophy was one of tough love with an emphasis on the love. There was also a strong streak of humility. I recall an occasion when one of the department managers complained that the younger workers "aren't like we were" and Alan replied, "Gee, I hope not. We were a bunch of colossal screw-ups."

Alan studied efforts and broke each aspect of the job into a series of steps. A systems person hidden within an amiable old boy shell, he wrote books on his profession, taught classes, mentored younger peers throughout the country, and still paid close attention to his family.

He wasn't one for inspirational speeches. He chose to influence people incrementally and often one person at a time. He was known to drop by field locations to "talk shop" and hear what the crews and first line supervisors were thinking. I suspect that a lot of his impact was felt over a cup of coffee as he listened to his crews review a tough project.

Many of his top associates went on to head departments in other organizations. Each of them had been heavily influenced by Alan. Their success was his success and it was no fluke. He'd turned his department into a leadership laboratory.

I've never known a better leader.

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