Highlights: Modern construction projects are complex and expensive, requiring the technical expertise of a variety of organizations: contractors, subcontractors, architects, engineers, and owners and their agents. People make up these organizations, and getting these people to work together as a team requires excellent leadership. Excellent leadership is the foundation for every successful project. Such leadership finds its roots deep in the heart of the respective organization, growing long before that organization sets foot on the construction project. What is leadership? How can you identify good leaders? If you want to become a better leader, how can you do so? This article provides at least partial answers to these questions, relying heavily on the Principles of Naval Leadership. Two of the three authors (Davisson and Holman) served in the United States Navy and believe that the Principles of Naval Leadership provide an excellent guide for successful leadership in any setting, including on the construction project.
What Is Leadership?
Leadership is the art of accomplishing the organization’s mission through people. There is no specific formula for excellent leadership. It is an art, not a science. There are leadership principles, however, that provide guidelines we shall discuss.
How Can You Use this Article?
You can use this article to help identify leaders and organizations with excellent leadership. If you are an owner hiring a construction manager, you can use this article in developing a checklist to help you determine whether that construction manager will provide the leadership you need for your project. If you are a construction manager hiring a project superintendent, you also can use this article in developing a checklist to help you determine if the person you are thinking about hiring will be an excellent leader. If you are a project superintendent (or an owner, construction manager, or anyone else), you can use this article to become a better leader.
Principles of Naval Leadership
The Principles of Naval Leadership provides leadership guidelines. The document can be found at the Competency and Skills page of the Strategic and Leadership studies of the United States Air Force Air University at: http://leadership.au.af.mil/sls-skil.htm#navy. This webpage is a source of other leadership materials.
Principle No. 1:
Know yourself and seek self-improvement.
The leader must know herself and be committed to self-improvement. Being a leader is not a 9-5 job. Being a leader involves evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. Being a leader involves a lifelong commitment to self-improvement, continuously seeking to get better. For those of you who want to get better, here are four excellent books to get you started:
• J. Collins, GOOD TO GREAT (2001)—great book filled with ideas—see also Jim Collins’ website at www.jimcollins.com.
• C. Michael Abrashoff, IT’S YOUR SHIP (2002)—excellent book filled with simple leadership principles, highly rated on Amazon—see also Michael Abrashoff’s website at www.grassrootsleadership.com.
• J. Welch and S. Welch, WINNING (2005)—a good look inside the best-run corporation in the world.
• M. Goldsmith and M. Reiter, WHAT GOT YOU HERE WON’T GET YOU THERE—HOW SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE GET EVEN MORE SUCCESSFUL (2007)—highly acclaimed book by one of the nation’s leading executive coaches—see also Marshall Goldsmith’s library website: www.marshallgoldsmithlibrary.com.
Principle No. 2:
Be technically and tactically proficient.
Very simply put, the leader must know her stuff. On a construction project, if she is the project executive for the construction manager, she must know construction and anticipate what will happen before it happens. If she is the architect’s representative, she must not only understand her drawings, but also know how her project will be built. The leader who does not know her stuff will not command the respect from the other members of the project team.
Being technically and tactically proficient means that the leader will have a lifelong commitment to continuous improvement (Principle No. 1). The excellent companies in the construction industry understand this principle and provide many self-improvement opportunities for their employees.
Those of you who are interested in executive leadership educational opportunities can visit The Ohio State University’s Fisher College Executive Education website: www.cob.ohio-state.edu/programs/executive- education.
Principle No. 3:
Know your subordinates and look out for their welfare.
Leaders have a genuine interest in people. While leaders are human and understanding, at the same time, they set high performance standards. Leaders look out for their people, seeing that they are treated fairly at all times. Leaders get to know and understand their people. Leaders are not dictators. Leaders develop loyalty based upon understanding, mutual respect and standing up for their people, putting the interests of their people before their own interests. Leaders are in close contact and continuous communication with their people. Leaders know what is happening almost as soon as it happens. Anyone who has experience on a construction project knows how vital continuous communication and current information is to the project’s success.
Principle No. 4:
Keep others informed.
Leaders are forthright, honest, and direct with their people. Leaders communicate clearly and frequently. Leaders keep open the lines of communication. From the outset, leaders clearly identify their objectives and expectations. If necessary, leaders will explain tasks a second or third time to prevent misunderstandings. Communication is a two-way process. Leaders always encourage team members to ask questions. Questions (and answers) prevent miscommunication on any construction project.
Principle No. 5:
Leaders set the example.
Leaders always set the example. In the Navy, the first person in the office usually is the commanding officer. The commanding officer has the power to take the easy assignments but never does so. The commanding officer could order that the midnight flight be assigned to another pilot so that she could get a good night’s sleep. But she would never do so; she would always take her spot in the normal flight rotation, just like any other pilot in the squadron. Leaders never cut corners. Leaders are 100% ethical and honest. A sign on the desk of former president Harry Truman read, “The buck stops here.” On a construction project, too, the buck stops with the leader.
Principle No. 6:
Train your unit as a team.
Leaders train their people to work together as a team. Leaders aggressively look for opportunities to stress teamwork and train their people. In the business world, including on the construction site, there are plenty of opportunities for regular training. Leaders will seize upon these opportunities to train and develop their people. For example, scheduling and coordination are critical to any construction project. Good leaders will look for opportunities to include training about scheduling and coordination as part of regular project meetings and apply the lessons learned to the current project. This training will be a team effort, actively involving team members as trainers and participants.
Principle No. 7:
Make sound and timely decisions.
Leaders consistently make good decisions (and good decisions are timely decisions). These decisions are a product of experience, the lifelong commitment to continuous learning (Principle No. 1), native intelligence, and common sense.
Joe Gill was an attorney with Bricker & Eckler LLP who passed away several years ago. Joe was a World War II Army Air Corps pilot. Joe said that one half of the Air Corps’ fighter pilots who were lost, were lost on their first mission. Experience counts! Leaders learn from experience. Leaders combine their experiences with learning. Leaders develop the ability to see the forest as well as the trees. On a construction project, the ability to be a good leader should increase with experience, so try to build an experienced team.
Leaders develop a logical and orderly thought process. Leaders think ahead, planning for contingencies, anticipating what could go wrong and planning how to handle the situation before it happens. Leaders never procrastinate; they act. Leaders expect the unexpected.
Principle No. 8:
Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates.
Leaders cannot do everything. Leaders must rely on their people. To rely on their people, leaders must continuously work to develop a strong sense of responsibility. Leaders need to push down work and then resist the temptation to micromanage. Leaders need to be sure their people know that they are relying on them, and that success depends on their people’s efforts.
Leaders need to correct their people’s mistakes, explaining the errors in a way that will encourage them to try harder. Leaders need to distinguish between carelessness and good faith efforts that fall short of expectations. Carelessness is not acceptable, and leaders must convey this message clearly and with appropriate force. Leaders also will aggressively look for opportunities to recognize and reward their people’s excellent performance on the construction project.
Principle No. 9:
Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities.
We are not talking about military commands here. We are, however, talking about organizations that work on construction projects—firms of architects, engineers, construction managers, contractors and subcontractors. Simply put, while leaders often are aggressive, they will not bite off more than they can chew. Leaders will know their people and their capabilities and will not assign their people tasks that are beyond their capabilities. Leaders will not throw a new and inexperienced team member into a difficult situation that is way over his head.
Principle No. 10:
Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.
Leaders always take responsibility for their actions. Leaders are not “sea lawyers”—a Navy term for someone who is full of excuses and attempts to avoid responsibility. Leaders look for opportunities with increased responsibility and then work tirelessly to perform to the best of their ability. Leaders think. They do not sit on their hands. Leaders take initiative. The battle of Midway, which changed the entire character of the War in the Pacific, was won by initiative and daring, not by Admiral Spruance sitting and waiting for someone to tell him what to do and how to do it. Initiative can pay off on the construction site, too.
Principle No. 11:
Success is the child of passion and effort. Leaders who succeed have a passion that is infectious. All projects face challenges. Accept that fact and know that when adversity begins to weigh upon you, passion and effort will help you carry the day. Surround yourself with others who share your passion and embrace the joy of the project. Although the business of construction is fraught with pitfalls, the joy of a well-done project is a feeling difficult to match in our professional lives.