By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

There was a time when the most common models in the work world were the solitary contributor and the very small team, usually no bigger than a family.

In 1800, 83 percent of the American workforce worked on farms – small farms, family farms. One adult oversaw planting, cultivating and harvesting, perhaps with the help of children and possibly a hired hand. One adult handled preserving (canning) and cooking the harvest, perhaps with the help of children.

Today ag workers make up just two percent of the workforce – and most of them are found on huge farming operations known as factory farms.

Meanwhile, census data today shows that 39.2 percent of American workers are employed by either large or very large companies – places which employ at least 2500 and often more than 10,000 employees. Another 26.5 percent work at mid-sized companies (100 to 2499 employees).

Even the 34.3 percent who work at so-called “small companies” could be part of a workforce of as many as 99 employees – considerably more than any “small” firm was likely to employ 200 years ago.

Large scale consumption

Consider, too, the trend towards larger organizations when it comes to consumption. The Mom and Pop grocery, once the staple of every small town and city neighborhood, has been supplanted by the super market – and that “big box” store is usually just one of many owned by a huge company. (Walmart, for  example, owns over 6,000 stores.)

The rise of national department store chains around the turn of the 20th century – Sears in 1893; Penney’s in 1902, to name just two -- pushed out countless small retail shops. Now these chains are fighting for their lives as even bigger discount store chains and a mere handful of huge online retailers grab ever larger shares of the pie.

Big may not be better, but it certainly is more dominant when it comes to how people produce and consume today.

Need for leadership grows

And that means leadership is becoming an ever more important consideration in how well we produce and consume. Because the bigger our organizations get, the more important role leadership plays in their performance.

Back in 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew the first heavier-than-air powered vehicle at Kitty Hawk, NC, leadership was not a huge issue. If the two brothers could get along, the project could progress.

They did need to rely on Charlie Taylor, an employee, to build an engine, and they needed some men from a government life-saving station to help them unload and set up their plane and launching rail. But the coordination required to achieve their goal was not very complex.

The Wright Brothers achievement was incredible. But who would launch our modern system of commercial air travel using planes like theirs? No way! Now, even after more than a century of engineers standing on the shoulders of giants, what are the chances that one or two of them could build a modern jetliner in their lifetimes? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The complexity of building just one of the more than 20,000 modern jetliners that comprise the world’s system of commercial air travel exceeds the ability of one or two people. Even if they had all the plans and all the parts, they would have no better hope of fully assembling a fully functioning airliner than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had of putting Humpty Dumpty together again.

Confronting complexity

The challenge is just too complex.

To get it done, we need people – lots of people. And they need paychecks, so they need an employer – as it turns out, a big employer.

How big? Well, the largest commercial airline manufacturer in the U.S., Boeing, has over 140,000 employees. Okay, not all of them are engaged in building airliners. But a lot of them are ... because you need a lot of people to build even one jetliner, much less a whole fleet that will keep your company viable.

Big may not be beautiful, but for a lot of things – indeed, a growing list of things – big is necessary.

And big projects engaging big employers require leadership – lots of it, from the smallest teams to the global spans of control subject to the stewardship exercised in C-suites.

Leadership challenges everywhere

But lest we leave you with a wrong impression, leadership is not something reserved exclusively for large organizations. Indeed, leadership is required everywhere – and effective leadership is always in demand.

Good leadership is required in a family, where the daunting goal is to lovingly socialize and otherwise help children to prepare to eventually grow into happy and contributing adults. Good leadership is required in every relationship, and often to be good and effective it must be shared.

Athletic teams perform better with effective leaders. So do the schools that often host them. Faculties perform better at all levels when they benefit from wise leadership. Same for construction crews, ship crews and crews on oil rigs. It’s also true for neighborhood associations, parent-teacher organizations and square dance clubs.

It’s true in Congress, state legislatures and municipal government. Street crews need leadership and so do NASA’s teams that landed men on the moon and are shooting now to get people to Mars.

The better the leadership, the better the group performance.

Of course, there are other variables: the availability of capital and other critical resources, the difficulty of the goal, the competence and interdependence of the team and the length of the timeline, to name just a few.

But all other things being equal, leadership makes the difference between success and failure in any group venture – from a group as small as two to as large as 7.7 billion (the number of people on the planet).

Two key characteristics

After studies of many, many companies, Jim Collins, author of the best-selling business book Good to Great, concluded that the very best leaders – those who lead the very best performing organizations – are distinguished by two things: their personal humility and their professional will.

They are people who know that the task at hand is not about them, it’s about the group’s mission. And they are completely devoted to achieving that mission. These are the kind of people who, if they determine they are not the best person to lead the effort to achieve the mission, will step aside and let someone else take the helm.

But until that moment comes with clarity, they will do all that they can humanly do to achieve the group’s mission – and if they fail, they are resolved to take all the responsibility even if countless subordinates came up short in countless ways.

In all of this, they think and live and breathe with the certainty that the enterprise is not about them. Instead, it is about achieving the mission. This is the personal humility that Collins found at the heart of every exceptional leader.

Why does that matter? 

Personal humility matters because people are pretty smart. At the least, when they spot a skunk they know it. If they are working for a boss who thinks everything is about him or her, who is engaged for his or her good and only that, people generally figure that out.

And when they do, what do they decide has to come first in their work lives? They have to put themselves first -- just to protect themselves from their supervisor’s self-centered focus.

And when they do that, who’s minding the mission? Nobody. And when nobody minds the mission, guess what: good things, mission-centered things, happen less and less often. Eventually, organizational performance suffers.

The world is full of bad bosses, people who don’t give a thought to anyone or anything except themselves. Often they seem to thrive even as they make other people’s lives miserable. Often you don’t have any practical choice but to submit to their torture.

Take heart in bad situations

Take heart. Do what you must to survive – short of breaking the law or renouncing your values. Keep looking around for opportunities to contribute to the common good, if not on the job, then off it.

There will be opportunities to be your best and to do your best. Keep looking for them. Keep hoping for them.

And when you get a chance to be a positional leader, resolve to be a good one – a personally humble leader with incredible will to effectively develop and engage other people to help you achieve your group mission.

The world will be better for it – and so will you.

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