What Makes a Logistics Leader?

Great leaders relish and seek responsibility and accountability. They inspire confidence, win the hearts and minds of their team, and bring out their best, whether on the warehouse floor or in the executive wing. The strategies and advice in this article can help get you on the leadership track.

Companies in the early 21st century may be on the brink of a leadership crisis. With Baby Boomers about to retire in droves, and other potential leaders downsized or demotivated, who will replace them?

“Where the next generation of leaders will come from has given many organizations pause, and a renewed interest in leadership development,” says Carol J. Dell’Amore, Ph.D., director of the National Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland University College, Adelphi, Md.

While leadership capabilities are important in all business disciplines, the unique challenges in the logistics and supply chain arena make them a critical part of achieving results.

“Logistics professionals work across functions within the organization, with business units throughout the company, and with partners across the supply chain,” says Maria McIntyre, executive director of the Council of Logistics Management, Oak Brook, Ill. “Collaborating with trading partners and developing innovative solutions to optimize logistics and supply chain strategy and operations require strong leadership abilities.”

“Leadership in logistics and supply chain management is the difference between the traditional role of supply chain and distribution—that of being a necessary evil whose job is to just get the shipment out the door—to becoming an integral part of the management team and the strategic direction of the company,” notes Chuck Taylor, CEO and executive vice president of ServiceCraft Logistics, Buena Park, Calif.

Logistics leadership is critical for companies seeking to establish competitive advantage through supply chain management and logistics.

“The real opportunity in supply chain management today involves understanding your trading partners’ objectives, and making the sale internally to company management,” says Ralph Drayer, chairman of Supply Chain Insights, LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, and former chief logistics officer of Procter & Gamble.

Procter & Gamble was successful as one of the early logistics innovators in part because its logistics and supply chain leaders had a strong vision, were creative and innovative, and were willing to change the way the game was played.

“Logistics represents a large investment for most corporations,” notes Mike Finley, president, Insight Inc., Manassas, Va. “Logistics leaders must take responsibility for that investment, exercise responsible and accountable stewardship, and maximize the ROI on that investment by working both ends of the equation: drive down cost and improve performance and economy. Great leaders maximize ROI by inspiring their organizations to achieve goals.”

leaders transcend boundaries

“To be a good supply chain leader, you have to be able to span boundaries,” says Taylor. “To be successful in supply chain management, you have to have social awareness, and be accommodating and flexible” to lead change that transcends boundaries.

Leadership is needed at all levels in a organization. But the warehouse floor and the executive suite represent their own challenges. “Each environment has its own set of rules and political forces,” Finley says. “As a leader, you must understand the surroundings and you must win the hearts and minds of your team to be successful. A great leader is able to bring the best out of each person whether on the warehouse floor or in the executive wing.”

Leadership means different things to different people, and effective leadership styles can vary significantly, depending on the person and the situation. While this makes it difficult to precisely define leadership, research indicates several competencies and skills that are a core part of leadership, says Dell’Amore.

These include:

Vision. “Leadership is the ability to inspire people based on a vision you create for them,” notes Drayer. “The vision is really a dream with a deadline. A lot of people can come up with clever ideas, but leaders create something that becomes a passion for everybody.”

While the vision doesn’t need to be grandiose, it does need to differentiate from the present state. As such, “leadership evolves around change,” says Robert W. Coon, vice president of human resources for Menlo Worldwide Inc., Redwood City, Calif. “When we ask our leadership classes to name top leaders, inevitably the one quality that comes out in all the lists is that these people led change.”

Inspiration and motivation. Leaders convey their vision with passion. They are excellent communicators who can get people excited about the vision and committed to making it a reality. “Good leaders must be able to inspire others to pursue their vision,” Mike Finley says.

Empowerment. Effective leaders empower their employees, and “create an environment that allows people to exercise their talents and maximize their potential,” Dell’Amore says. “They feel the responsibility to develop themselves and others.”

Authenticity. “Effective leaders have a certain degree of integrity, respect for others, and an ethical and moral framework from which they operate,” says Dell’Amore.

Mike Finley, a retired Rear Admiral in the Supply Corps of the U.S. Navy who served as Commander of the Naval Inventory Control Point, identifies additional key components of leadership. “Leaders must always question the status quo, be aware of the ever-changing environment, and be willing to act decisively,” he says. Good leaders inspire confidence, and relish—and seek—responsibility and accountability.

In addition, “most good leaders I have encountered are great innovators who are self-starters and identify with the goals of their organization,” he says. “They also have the ability to quickly analyze facts and draw correct conclusions. They must also be skilled decision-makers—knowing when a quick decision is required and taking the time when it is available to diligently research alternatives.

Finally, Finley says, “loyalty is a leadership trait that is not often spoken about, but it can be very powerful. Leaders who are loyal to the organization, the people they work with, and themselves is a valuable commodity. They understand the power that loyalty and integrity bring and the confidence they instill.”

Leaders or Managers?

Don’t confuse leadership with management. “Leading means inspiring and enabling an organization,” says Ralph Drayer. “Managers don’t really inspire or lead an organization; they are there to manage a group of people. It’s more administration than leadership.”

“Leadership means holding people responsible and capable of performing a mission,” says William G. “Gus” Pagonis, head of supply chain for Sears Roebuck Co. and president of Sears Logistics Services, Hoffman Estates, Ill. A retired three-star Army general who led U.S. Armed Forces logistics operations during the Gulf War, Pagonis notes, “it’s the leader’s responsibility to train subordinates so that they fully understand what the leader wants them to accomplish, to make sure they have the right tools and resources to do the job, and to keep morale up and people motivated. A manager sometimes forgets about those kinds of things.”

“Management is focused on effective deployment of resources, systems, and processes,” says Judith Anderson, founder of Anderson & Rust and its educational affiliate, LeadershipU.org, Allendale, N.J. “Managers can and should be leaders.”

“There are a lot of managers around, but not as many leaders,” Chuck Taylor notes. “Execution involves getting people to do what needs to be done. Having a vision and giving people hope—those are big parts of leadership.”

“You can be a good manager and not be a good leader; you can be a good leader and not be a good manager,” says Dell’Amore. For example, a great visionary and communicator may not have the management skills needed to make the vision a reality.

“We often run up against people in management positions who are not necessarily leaders,” observes Barclay Hope, president of Albert’s Organics, a national organic foods distributor based in Vernon, Calif. “Managers don’t necessarily need to be leaders, but it’s an advantage.”

Managers today need to be a hybrid, serving as both managers and leaders. A manager takes care of today, while a leader looks to the future. “You have to do both,” Pagonis says.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

“I wasn’t a born leader,” Pagonis says. “I don’t believe there are born leaders. Every leader has been trained by their environment, mentors, and superiors.”

Taylor agrees that leaders can be developed. “If you have the will to lead, you can develop the skills you need to do so.”

“I’ve seen many effective leaders who had all kinds of personality traits,” Ralph Drayer says. “I don’t think leadership is a personality trait.” While many leadership capabilities can be learned and developed, “leaders must have passion, and they have to be born with that,” he says.

“Anyone who wants to become a leader can develop the skills and talents necessary to do the job,” Dell’Amore says. Leaders continually work to develop their own capabilities and provide resources and support so their staffs can do the same.

Developing Your Own Abilities

“Leadership development begins with a sound understanding of one’s self,” Dell’Amore says. “Most people generally have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, but it is not uncommon for them to have a blind spot.” Those blind spots can be uncovered by assessments such as 360-degree evaluations—used by the National Leadership Institute and other leadership development programs—which provide input from a boss, peers, and direct reports as well as a self-assessment.

Gus Pagonis has another approach. “Sit down, get out a piece of paper, and write down all the things you think you do very well,” he advises. “Be very egotistical.” Then, on the other side of the paper, write down all the things you don’t do well. As part of this self-assessment, “decide what you’ll never be able to do, and identify the things that you can improve,” he says. Ask your boss to make a similar assessment.

Assessing your leadership capabilities is not a one-time exercise, according to Dell’Amore, “particularly if you’re in a new role, have increased your scope of responsibility, are working with new people, or are facing new challenges. It’s a good idea to see if what you were doing before is still working for you now.”

Other steps to building leadership skills include:

Develop specific goals. Taking incremental steps to fix your weaknesses “can slowly have a big impact,” Chuck Taylor says. For example, early in his career Taylor recognized that he needed to develop his confidence and presentation skills. He made himself ask questions during meetings so that he could experience the feeling of standing up and speaking in front of a group. Over time, experiences such as these helped Taylor become more comfortable communicating in groups. He is now a frequent public speaker.

“Articulate specific goals about what you want to do differently,” Dell’Amore advises. For example, a common goal is to be more approachable to your staff. There are many ways to reach this objective. “Some people might have a goal that’s as simple as taking a direct report out to lunch once a month, periodically visiting their direct reports’ staff meetings, or meeting with teams on a regular basis.”

Once you’ve identified your goals, detail how you will reach them. “When are you going to do it? Who do you need to help you do it? What are the downsides of doing that? Flesh out a plan,” she suggests.

Include a support mechanism. “Changing leadership behaviors is not simple. It requires vigilance and hard work,” Dell’Amore warns. For greatest success, put in place a support system to help you change your behavior. This may be as simple as programming your computer to send you a regular reminder or working with your colleagues, your boss, or an executive coach.

Put a priority on enhancing leadership skills. “Experiential education is very effective in this area,” notes Judith Anderson. “Attend seminars where you can actually practice leadership skills.”

In addition to seeking out formal leadership courses, look for other learning opportunities as well. When you attend professional meetings, for example, “don’t spend all your time at technical logistics and supply chain presentations,” says Taylor. “Attend some leadership development sessions.”

“Read the leadership literature and articles,” Pagonis suggests, “but do so selectively. If you’re not careful, you can get inundated.” It’s better to concentrate your reading on the areas you need to develop while occasionally dipping into readings in areas where you’re strong.

Check your emotional maturity. A key component of leadership is emotional maturity or intelligence. “Self-awareness in today’s environment is a requirement,” Anderson says. Individuals who are self-aware know when they’re upset or angry and how to manage and address those emotions.

“To be a good leader, you have to be empathetic toward people. Unless you have some emotional intelligence about yourself and how you react and behave, you can’t be empathetic,” notes Taylor.

“Emotional intelligence has to do with understanding yourself and understanding others, knowing what their motivations and aspirations are, and managing and effectively working with your emotions and the emotions of others,” explains Dell’Amore.

Emotional intelligence skills include “appreciative inquiry, empathetic listening, articulating your experience and point of view in a way that others can hear (without shouting), and the ability to manage conflict,” Anderson says.

The more emotionally mature a person is, “the more they’re able to handle the inevitable tough conversations and sticky situations that come up without reacting defensively,” says Barclay Hope.

Emotionally mature managers can understand where others are coming from, take and digest the information, and manage the situation. “When people move into their own upset, the situation is about territory, me against him or them,” he says. This results in unproductive rather than solution-oriented behaviors.

Anderson advises that managers become aware of their own unproductive behaviors, understand their source, and begin to address them.

Seek feedback on your performance. “We tend to be very clear about what other people need to be doing differently,” Anderson says. But we’re not always so clear about where we need to change. “In every situation, ask what you can do differently that might work a little better.” In addition, she says, “ask your staff, ‘how can I be different so that you can be more productive?'”

Recognize that your staff may initially be reluctant to level with you. If you get blank stares in response to your request for feedback, then ask them, ‘how can I ask this question differently so that you’re willing to tell me?’ Feedback on what you can do to help others do their job more effectively should become a natural part of your relationships.

Never stop. “People arrive at a point where they think they’re in charge and don’t need to learn anymore,” says Barclay Hope. “The most effective people in life are the ones who are wide open to learning more and getting better every day.” He advises logistics managers to “be open to the learnings that are available; be willing to embrace continuing education.” He believes strongly that “the people who are willing to embrace their challenges and take active steps to address them—not just pay lip service—are the ones who will thrive in any position they’re in.”

“You have to keep learning,” Taylor agrees. “You have to know yourself, reach out, and experiment with different styles of leadership.” Recognize that you’ll be a different leader in the later stages of your career than you were in the beginning—so make sure your leadership capabilities continue to grow.

Gus Pagonis is committed to this, investing a day each year to review his leadership style and identify what he needs to change and modify. For example, he has adjusted his leadership style to take into account the continuing growth and development of the members of his team.

Developing Staff Capabilities

A growing number of companies offer leadership education opportunities. Logistics/supply chain professionals at Sears, for example, participate in leadership courses that are developed by Human Resources and taught primarily by logisticians, such as distribution center managers.

The Council of Logistics Management sends its managers to executive development courses that include leadership components, according to Maria McIntyre, who has herself taken formal leadership training. Mentoring and coaching are also an important part of training at CLM.

Albert’s Organics uses a blend of training vehicles to develop its managers’ leadership skills, including internal and external training programs, required readings followed by discussion, and bringing in speakers and coaches to address leadership topics. The company has also implemented an internal mentoring program. Managers who are new to a position report to and communicate weekly with an experienced manager, who provides feedback, guidance, and coaching.

Menlo Worldwide recently established a School of Leadership within its corporate university, which has courses for professional employees, executives, and officers of the corporation. The curriculum includes a structured series of six to eight specific courses in effective leadership, Menlo’s Bob Coon explains.

The voluntary program, introduced in January, has gotten tremendous response from employees. “We fill up every class at every level,” Coon says. The courses are taught by a blend of local management, trained instructors from Menlo University, and a large adjunct faculty made up of leaders throughout the organization. The leadership courses are held at six major sites in the United States and training centers in the Netherlands and Singapore.

“We’re not training people to follow a set of rules,” Coon says. “That’s management. We’re trying to educate people to understand the key concepts and know how to apply them. When you can do that—when the warehouse manager looks at line supervisors as people who are leading their employees through the change process—that’s when you really get leadership” at all levels of the organization.

Starting Small

While not every organization can draw on a corporate university to develop and present leadership courses to its logistics staff, “every company has the ability to start some sort of structured education process for their leaders,” Coon points out. “We started relatively small, with a few courses on the basics of leadership.”

In addition, he says, remember that, as a manager, “you have the freedom to lead your organization, and the opportunity as well as the obligation to begin to make positive change within your own structure.”

Introduce the concept of leadership to your staff, advises Judith Anderson, and act as a model for them. Serve as a coach, and provide individual feedback to help your direct reports develop their leadership skills.

“As an effective leader, you should meet with individuals and give them guidance on their own development,” says Carol Dell’Amore. Talk about their career goals and inspirations, what competencies they need, their areas of strength and weakness, and how you can act as a coach and sponsor to help them achieve their goals.

Yes, it is difficult to find the time to act as coach for each of your direct reports. But the effort will generally pay off, Dell’Amore says.

“Organizations whose managers take the time and put the investment in their people are more effective and perform better.
“High-performing organizations have some kind of leadership development program in place, and the culture puts a high priority on managers developing the talents of the people that they manage,” she says.