Looking back at school, I don't recall learning much about leadership. Apart from some presidents and generals in history class and the Curies and Einsteins in first period science, leadership was not something scheduled into the lesson plans. If you were not in the Scouts or on a sports team, the closest you got to leadership was looking at the portraits of historical figureheads in your textbooks.
In an industry as fragmented as construction supply, there is room for thousands of leaders, and it is a constant privilege as a journalist to be provided the chance to meet so many of them. From the small, one-unit shop owners who work side by side with employees to the most financially colossal pro dealer executives, there are men and women at the top—and within the ranks—that inspire, motivate, provide direction, and guide their co-workers, companies, peers, and even their customers to new levels of success. But still I wonder where our future leaders are coming from, what makes them great, and how we can leverage the timeless aphorism that great leaders are not born, but made?
“What are the elements of this alloy we call ‘leadership'?” asks Bill Breen in “The Three Ways of Great Leaders,” an article in the September 2005 special leadership issue of Fast Company magazine. “Certainly they include vision and integrity, perseverance and courage, a hunger for innovation, and a willingness to take risks.” But even at Harvard University, business professors are lamenting the lack of instruction in the history, qualities, and application of leadership, Breen writes. Nitin Nohria, Harvard business professor and co-author of the forthcoming In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the 20th Century, is aiming to change that by identifying and studying some 7,000 business leaders, eventually winnowing down the list to the top 100.
In an interview with Breen, Nohria identifies three types of leadership that emerged from his research: the entrepreneurial leader (such as C.W. Post), the managerial leader (Louis B. Neumiller), and the charismatic leader (Lee Iacocca). In the pro dealer universe, we've got examples of them all, but I'd also add a fourth: the committed leader. Beyond vision, great management, and personal charm, the value of consistently holding true to the corporate mission and the daily tasks at hand is undeniable. Unsustainable, touch-and-go leadership eventually just becomes sporadic days of greatness within tenures of mediocrity.
“Taking chances, motivating others, making a stand—those are all great leadership qualities,” says Casey Voorhees, executive director of the Olympia, Wash.–based Western Building Material Association (WBMA). For the past 13 years, Voorhees has seen a host of top-notch leaders serve at WBMA. Most recently, president Mike Hennick of Bandon, Ore.–based Hennick's Home Center, immediate past president Jeff Swan of Port Orchard, Wash.–based Evergreen Lumber, and vice presidents Rick McCartney and Tom Simkins of Spokane, Wash.–based Valley Best-Way and Simkins-Hallin Lumber in Bozeman, Mont., respectively, have all had a remarkable impact on the association, Voorhees says. “Most importantly, the guys who have done a great job leading our association are committed,” Voorhees says. “They commit to us and they are consistent in their commitment to motivation and leadership at their yards back home.”
If leaders are indeed made, and if it is true that we lead best by example, I can't think of any other quality that comes close to commitment in the power and scope of what it can do for the success of a business or even a personal career. Leadership and management fads will come and go, but commitment by its very nature always weathers the storm. The concept transcends both work and life, and in my opinion it is something that you cannot learn in school. Ultimately, I thank our industry for teaching it to me.