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Leadership Advice From a Major General

Leadership Advice From a Major General

Batiste at Best Plants: 'In my experience, team members can call the shots.'

During his 31-year career in the U.S. Army, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste learned a lot of things that "absolutely apply in business."

An authoritarian, command-and-control leadership philosophy was not one of them. Batiste, now president of Rochester, N.Y.-based Klein Steel Service Inc., urged manufacturers at IndustryWeek's Best Plants Conference last week to create "team-member-centric" organizations in which all employees drive profitability.

"In my view, a leader is all about serving people in the organization -- enabling them to be all they can be," Batiste said. It might have been a bit surprising to hear a retired major general preach about the benefits of decentralizing, reducing layers, and empowering and trusting employees.

But Batiste insisted that his time in the military, which included commanding the Army's 1st Infantry Division in the early 2000s, taught him that "leadership is all about service."

"In my experience, the team members can often call the shots, with the leader in a support role," Batiste said. "I very rarely had to put my fingers in somebody's chest" to get them to follow orders.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Batiste didn't have to put his fingers in anyone's chest at Best Plants in Atlanta, where a receptive audience followed his keynote presentation on "Leadership in Tough Times." Batiste outlined six leadership principles:

  1. Set the azimuth. Establish the organization's mission, vision, values and culture. Klein's culture, Batiste said, is about "doing the right thing in the absence of supervision."
  2. Listen. "Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut."
  3. Decentralize. Trust and empower your workers, and provide the resources they need to get the job done. "Delegate to the appropriate level and get out of the way," Batiste said.
  4. Do the right thing when no one is looking. "Don't ask your teammates to do anything you wouldn't do."
  5. When in charge, take charge. "Leaders need to lead, follow or get out of the way."
  6. Balance the personal and professional. "It's not about working harder, it's about working smarter."

"Leadership," Batiste concluded, "is a developed skill -- a journey."

It's not something you can learn simply by reading a book, and it can't be developed from behind your computer. And above all, the traditional top-down model -- in which "somebody at the top has all the answers" -- isn't true leadership.

"Decentralization in my experience has created unbelievable results," Batiste said.

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