The regular Leader vs. Manager memes on LinkedIn are getting a bit tedious. They are always banal, theoretical and rarely backed up with evidence, so I thought I might make things real by recounting a career changing leadership experience of my own.
It was 1979. I was fresh out of University and was given a small construction project to manage in North Manchester. I returned to site after a meeting, early one Friday afternoon, to find the place deserted. I immediately knew where everyone was and had a tough decision to make. How do I maintain some semblance of authority and not be taken for a ride for the rest of the project?
I walked down to the pub and hammered on the locked door. They were all there and in no fit state to come back to work. I said I was stopping their pay from lunchtime and left.
Later on, I was working in the site office and was confronted by two of the larger guys. One politely explained he would return later with his shotgun to take out my kneecaps. I recall backing into the corner of the cabin and thinking I could get a couple of good kicks and punches in before they got the better of me. The tension eventually dissipated and we went our separate ways.
After a sleepless night I returned to work the next morning. They told me that they thought I should help them more instead of just doing my engineering and management tasks. That morning I started to learn how to erect scaffolding. Over the following weeks I learned skills in bricklaying, plastering and many others. I loved it.
Towards the end of the project 'Mr. Shotgun' informed me that he was naming his new son, Adrian. The bricklayer invited me to lay the final brick on the project and the customer’s representative specifically asked for me on another project.
That was a real lesson in leadership and it stayed with me for the rest of my career. If you are managing a project or managing a company, you should always be prepared to roll up your sleeves and muck in when necessary. You’ll get paid back in spades.