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Accidental Lesson in Leadership

Accidental Lesson In Leadership:

'Complainers' are sometimes great untapped resources. 

I got my first real taste of leadership managing about 20 Reactor Operators/Techs on the USS Long Beach when I was 25 years old. I had spent the first part of my career going through various schools and then serving as an Instructor at the Nuclear Prototype Unit in Idaho. It had been pretty easy duty really. But then, I went to 'serve my time in the fleet'. Suddenly, I was managing 20 other people in an extremely challenging situation. 

When I arrived (in 1990) our ship (CGN-9) was on the schedule to decommissioned in the next year or two - but we were suddenly redirected to prepare for a rush deployment to Desert Storm (in the Persian Gulf). We were extremely short-handed and grossly overloaded trying to get the oldest nuclear-powered ship in the Navy to a true combat ready status in a short amount of time.

Though I tried hard to be fair, plan ahead, and do the things I figured leaders should do, I often fell short, and I made many, many mistakes. I suddenly realized that Leadership and Management is really hard!  I want to talk about one of the mistakes that I made. 

There was a certain technician who worked for me (I will call him BC here since I have been unable to track him down and ask his permission to use his name).

BC was very sharp and extremely confident - but in my eyes, he complained excessively. In retrospect, the reason I initially viewed him that way was because of my own lack of experience and lack of confidence at the time. In reality, he was just bold enough to speak the truth about the problems and failures that I was too busy, and too insecure to want to hear at that time.

At one point, while he was “complaining” and pointing out some of the problems on one of our systems or procedure, I made the statement that I might assign him to fix it. I honestly don’t even remember the details - but I do recall knowing it would be a ton of work to fix, and in truth, I said it just to shut him up and sort of as a threat. But BC said ‘OK’ as sort of a “you don’t scare me” statement – or at least that was how I viewed it at the time...

I followed through with my 'threat' and assigned him to resolve the problems he had complained about. 

What happened next was a powerful lesson: BC quickly and thoroughly fixed the problems. I remember being really impressed. As I recall, I assigned him some other things to fix (specifically other things he ‘complained about’). And you guessed it – he consistently resolved whatever I put in front of him.

Eventually, I realized that he was not just complaining for the sake of complaining – but that he had a desire for things to work well. In short, he had capabilities that I had been suppressing or ignoring, and he was actually willing to work to help make things better. 

BC simply saw the problems that many didn't see (and/or weren't willing to voice). BC was definitely not one to brown-nose or play politics or hold back his thoughts. He spoke honestly and was totally unafraid to do so. The truth is, that intimidated me, and I misread him because of it. It's a little hard to admit those insecurities and personal failures on my part, but I believe they are pretty common (especially in new leaders) and I'm hoping others can learn from my mistakes.

BC turned out to be one of my best techs. I knew he would go on to succeed bigtime in the civilian world. He had tremendous charisma and a mind for management and solving problems. He was bold and charismatic and was truly a natural leader. 

By fate, I ran across BC many years after the Navy, while my company was doing some training for a large utility company. He had become a very senior manager there and was doing extremely well. While onsite, I was able to speak off-record with several people who worked for BC, and they all praised him as an outstanding manager who had a very positive impact on the plants and the people...

...and to think that all I saw at first was a complainer…  Lesson learned.

My point:

If you have some folks who seem a bit cynical, or maybe complain a bit, or voice their frustrations; don’t just assume they are no good 'whiners'. Try investing in them and hearing them out. Truly listen to what they have to say and maybe give them a chance to help resolve some of the problems they are passionate about.

Admittedly there are some complainers out there who complain only for the sake of complaining (the true 'whiners') – but some of those people who seem like complainers could be some of your best assets and greatest assets. 

The most valuable people in most organizations (and/or the hardest to find) are those with high knowledge and skill levels, who want to truly make improvements to help the cause. Those same people often end up being the folks with the confidence and the drive to be willing to voice their input to managers. Many times, those individuals could be some of the most valuable resources of an organization if handled properly. But from what I have seen in my travels, many of those individuals who could be helping the most, are outcast, snubbed, discouraged, pushed aside, or worse - because their criticism or feedback makes some managers uncomfortable for various reasons. Sadly, I have seen many other top-level techs or engineers who ended up leaving positions because leadership made the same mistakes that I made with BC (and others). 

So - Please learn from my mistakes... 

Sometimes the greatest lessons come by accident if we are honest with ourselves and let our ourselves learn from them. The older I get, the more clearly I recognize my past failures and mistakes. I don't beat myself up about those things (we are all learning after all) - but I do try to analyze them and learn from them. 

Mike Glass

About the author

Mike Glass

Mike Glass is an ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and a Master Certified Control System Technician (CCST III). Mike has 38 years of experience in the I&C industry performing a mix of startups, field service and troubleshooting, controls integration and programming, tuning & optimization services, and general I&C consulting, as well as providing technical training and a variety of skills-related solutions to customers across North America.

Mike can be reached directly via [email protected] or by phone at (208) 715-1590.