I have a good friend who is an officer in the US Army. He’s the Real Deal: immensely educated (engineering undergrad, Harvard MBA, plus multiple other graduate degrees), an elite athlete (each morning he outruns all the junior soldiers he works out with), and, as you can well imagine, highly motivated and disciplined. But before you begin to think he’d be the last person you’d want to go to a ballgame with, realize that he’s also one of the most creative and original thinkers I’ve ever met, not to mention a very capable consumer of cool Corona beverages. For example, I’ll never forget his story of manning a highway checkpoint as part of a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo: the afternoon was dragging on, the line of stopped cars growing ever longer, tempers flaring. What would you do to diffuse the situation? My friend had a portable field kitchen brought in ASAP and proceeded to serve up thousands of hot doughnuts, calming nerves and making friends via an awesomely creative use of soft power.
He’s also a tanker, meaning that he leads an organization of over a thousand individuals whose mission is to go to battle, if necessary, in tanks. I remember comparing notes on what a typical workday looked like. As you can imagine, ours were quite different. His started with an intense physical workout, and then transitioned to a full 12 hours of harsh decision making and do-it-now leadership, after which he would be free to go home. Except he wouldn’t. No, as a hardcore tanker, he would stroll over to the maintenance garage for a few more hours of wrenching on tanks along with rank and file soldiers. Why? Partly because, as an engineer, he loves mechanical stuff. And maybe there’s some stress relief in there. But mostly because he recognizes that he is a much stronger leader of men when his way of knowing – understanding what it takes to keep of group of tanks and tankers running day after day – comes by doing. For him, when to do is to know, there’s never a knowing-doing gap, and his leadership rings true and effective.
Think of my tanker buddy and ask yourself this: how would your own organization look, feel, and behave if its leadership really – really – understood what things were about? What if they could demo any product as well as a frontline salesperson? What if they could man the tech support helplines? Screw that, let’s lower the bar limbo limbo to the floor and just ask: what if the CEO knew how to start up the product we make?
I’m an engineer by training, so I’m biased, but I’ve long believed that product companies are best run by engineers/people who grok stuff at a deep level. Like Apple. Toyota. Porsche. Amazon. Or Honda… Honda makes arguably the best damn motors on the planet (eat your heart out Ferrari and BMW!) and they have a conspicuous habit of picking CEO’s from an elite pool of engineers who spent their formative 20’s wrenching on Formula 1 cars. You better believe these guys know cars inside and out, and it shows in the very real value difference between even the most pedestrian Accord (wow!) and an average rental-crapwagon Ford Taurus.
Consider this: last week Takeo Fukui, the CEO of Honda, shoehorned his derriere into a BAR-Honda Formula 1 car and proceeded to carve a few hot laps of Tochigi, the corporate R&D track, hitting 181 miles per hour. Few auto makers boast a CEO who can shift a manual gearbox, let alone demonstrate his company's racing vehicles at speed. For dessert Fukui straddled a RC211V Honda racing motorcycle and burned off a few more laps. Any wonder why Honda makes such great stuff?
I have a feeling Takeo and my tanker friend would see eye-to-eye on all the important aspects of leading by knowing by doing.