I was at a lecture that Tom Peters gave at the Cass Executive Leadership Masterclass in 2015. Here are some of the things he said about the importance of first line leaders.
‘If the regimental commander lost most of his 2nd lieutenants and 1st lieutenants and captains and majors, it would be a tragedy. If he lost his sergeants it would be a catastrophe. The Army and the Navy are fully aware that success on the battlefield is dependent to an extraordinary degree on the Sergeants and Chief Petty Officers. Does industry have the same awareness?’
‘I sincerely believe that the full cadre of first line supervisors is the single most important asset that an organisation has. It is the key to productivity; it is the key to attitude and culture and so on. I am not accusing you of not paying attention to first line managers. I am accusing you of not taking it half as seriously as I think you ought to.’
‘Any idiot can be a Vice President, being a first line leader is the real deal.’
In Vietnam we went out to some dangerous places. We always rode in the first jeep with the Chief Petty Officers at the end of the convoy. That wasn’t bravery; it was because the Chiefs had to be at the back so if anything happened they could run the thing.’
‘People leave managers not companies. The company isn’t the greatest in the world but I get along incredibly with you and I stick around. If the company is the greatest in the world and we don’t get on, then I am out of there.’
‘We think first line managers are important but I believe it isn’t an exaggeration to say that their skill set is the biggest strategic asset the organisation has.’
Each of these quotes by Peters reflects the real world reality. The fact is that poor first line leaders impact:
- The customer service provided – service levels, empathy, responsiveness
- The use of resources
- Staff morale
- Attrition and absence rates
- The take-up of change when new systems are introduced.
The reasons for this is that poor first line leaders:
- Don’t communicate on a regular basis with staff to the level needed which impacts morale
- Spend their time fire fighting instead of providing value add activities
- Aren’t fully engage in the performance management processes
- Are observed by staff not working as a team – particularly across functions where a blame culture can develop meaning issues never get resolved.
It follows that if any organisation is serious about leadership development, the logical place to start is with the first line leader.