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From frontline responsibility leadership to command-and-control leadership

By Bob Webb

This article compares my experiences with super motivated coworkers at the Panama Canal Company and super abused coworkers in Guam. I took early retirement and moved to Guam where my wife and I had planed to retire. In Guam, I went into culture shock when I became involved with highly abusive work environments. Until this time I gave no thought to leadership styles, because unconsciously, I adapted Panama Canal leadership policies and the way they did things. The culture shock in Guam inspired me to research workplace leadership and especially the Panama Canal Company. In Panama I was not aware of my leadership techniques, I acted on 25 years of experience and adapted to what worked. My experiences and findings are as follows:

In 1905, John Stevens was the chief engineer for the construction of the Panama Canal. He reorganized the work force giving priority to the needs of front line workers. He also gave the front line decision-making responsibility. As a result, the work force was highly motivated and the Panama Canal was completed as scheduled and under budget.

In 1963, at the age of twenty-seven, I was hired by the Panama Canal Company as a machinist. The front line decision-making responsibility that Mr. Stevens implemented almost sixty-years earlier, was still in place. The first day on the job I was overwhelmed at craftsmen's enthusiasm and seriousness they took for their assignments. Jobs were assigned to teams and each team was asking the supervisor to put me on their team. More manpower on a team makes task easier for team members. Being fought over during the first hour on the job put my ego in the stratosphere. Looking back, I think my support for the company was cemented in rock that day. This was the first time I had ever worked with highly motivated coworkers who had tremendous pride. In fact, everyone who entered the Canal Zone, including visitors, could feel Canal Zone pride. This pride also penetrated the US Arm Forces, making Panama the first choice for overseas duty. The Panama Canal Zone was a utopia, the ideal living and working environment for civilians and military.

The Panama Canal Company kept pride alive with the publication of a biweekly newspaper, quarterly magazine about Panama and the canal, and every five years the company published an anniversary book on canal history. Memorabilia was popular and available from various sources. Retirees established Canal Zone Societies in the States. Today this pride is kept alive on the Internet. A search engine will take you to these sites and you can experience this pride for yourself.

For the next twenty-five years, I learned to work in and lead teams. The team had total responsibility for getting the job done. The only thing the supervisor wanted to hear was that the job was completed. Craftsmen had authority to request services from others without going through supervision for permission. For example, a machinist could make a personal phone call to a crane operator for the use of a 50-ton crane, request services of an electrician, or a welder, if that was what the craftsman determined was needed to get the job done. Supportive craftsmen did not have to go through their supervisor or create any more paperwork than the requesting machinist or craftsman had. Getting the job done had priority and was the goal. Efficiency was measured by efficient service to the customers, at the Panama Canal it was transiting ships. Promotion was based on a craftsman ability to organize assignments and coworkers that got the job done. In this environment, skilled craftsmen had decision making powers that most companies will only allow engineers to make. The Panama Canal Company trained its front line work force to think an act like engineers. As a result, the work force was highly motivated and highly educated via team education. Elementary problems were nonexistent, because it was the team's responsibility to prevent or control them. On and off the job site, skilled craftsmen had high respect in the community.

I took early retirement and in 1991 settled in Guam, a territory of the United States. I wanted back in the job market and was hired as a supervisor for a small company. In the interview, the owners told me how they were in combat with their employees. From what they said, I through these problems could easily be corrected. On the job, I heard complaints from everyone, including agents and customers. From my point of view, these were all elementary problems that should never be. I assured everyone I could solve them. The minor problems (in my opinion) they were experiencing were nonexistent at the Panama Canal.

For the next two weeks, I was striving to gain the confidence of the employees and pull them together into a team that was in harmony with the company's needs. I used the leadership skills that I acquired over twenty-five years at the Panama Canal. I also took reams of notes. During this time, the owners were accusing me of taking sides with employees against management. They were pressuring me to use their combative style of leadership and I refused. I only had one chance to win the confidence of the employees, the owners confidence in me had to wait. I was not concerned, because, when the owners see the results all will be forgiven, so I thought.

After two weeks of being tested by the workers, I had won their confidence. They sat me down and went into detail of their complaints with the company. I took notes and told them "I think I can solve most of your concerns to your satisfaction, but not all." To me, most were reasonable and solvable. The next morning the owners called me into the office. I grabbed my notes and rushed in. They told me I was fired as of NOW! I was stunned! On leaving the office, the notes went in the trashcan.

This firing was a shock. I asked myself a puzzling question. How can my leadership skills make me a hero at one company and the same skills get me fired in two weeks at another? At that time I was not aware of leadership styles, I was reacting from years of experience. Other questions bothered me. Why didn't the owners realize their abusive policies caused most of the problems? Why did they blame everything on the employees? Could they not see employees were reacting to their abuses?

I soon landed another job at a small company, 30 employees, as captain of a harbor pilot boat. The only supervisory responsibility was one engineer. This time I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. I was only responsible for the boat and the customers who used it. The general manager's leadership style was highly abusive to employees except boat captains. Management was constantly battling elementary problems that were exploding. For example, the US Coast Guard told the general manager that some oil drums, on company grounds, were leaking and to clean it up. The general manager told the Coast Guard inspectors to GET LOST! The inspectors came back with a $250,000 fine. A crane fell in the harbor ripping the stern off a fishing boat as it went in. The angle to weight limit gage was missing along with dismantled safety devices. The operator jumped to safety, the damage, $150,000 to the crane plus damage to the fishing boat. Employees were made to work overtime without pay. On the surface, they accepted this abuse. Company property disappeared and this was generally considered bonus pay. Because stealing was acceptable at all levels, maintenance parts and tools could not be maintained. As a result, repairs were jury-rigged which meant frequent equipment failures. Abusive attitudes toward employees and equipment were the mindset throughout the company. Leadership believed abuse was needed to keep overhead cost down. The opposite is true, abuse increases overhead cost. Embracing Opportunity

Sloppy leadership created costly problems, but no one seemed to know it was sloppy. Problems were considered bad luck. To me it was obvious what was going on and I tried to point this out to the general manager and coworkers. It seemed that no one could see what I saw and coworkers begged me not to rock the boat. After three months, I could no longer watch workers and equipment being abused. I could no longer tolerate one solvable elementary problem explode after another. I was also becoming an outcast by coworkers, so I resigned.

In Guam, there was a construction boom going on at the time and there weren't enough US Citizens to supply labor demands. Chinese labors were shipped in from mainland China called H2 workers. In theory, they are to be paid the same as US workers. In reality, their wages were 1/5th the US worker. On paydays, they had to kickback the difference. The Hilton Hotel was using US construction workers at $15 per hour while the Holiday Inn, down the street, was using Chinese H2 workers at $3 per hour. H2 workers were highly abused and their efficiency was extremely low. Which work group was cost effective? This was a popular social topic. For cost of construction, it seemed to be a tie. For cost of operation and maintenance, it was the US worker built hotel. After a powerful hurricane hit Guam, the local newspaper did a survey of hotel damage. Hotels built by H2 workers had heavy damage while hotels built by US workers had light damage.

I applied for safety supervisor for H2 Chinese workers at the Holiday Inn project. During the interview I was told about the abusive working and living conditions of these people. The H2 workers were treated almost like prisoners. They work long hours on the job and they could not roam the streets of Guam. They lived in barracks with low standards of sanitation. If a Chinese made a complaint to an American, they were shipped back to China and heavily fined for break of contract. My job would be to enforce safety regulations on workers that know nothing about safety. I did not go back for a follow-up interview. I found it difficult to believe that this island was part of the United States. Companies in Panama did not treat their employees like they were treated here. The interview turned me off to Guam and I moved to South Carolina.

Note: US labor and safety laws apply in Guam, but they are not enforced.

In Guam, I was reacting to years of Panama Canal training that I considered to be normal. I eventually realized that abusive leadership was the mindset of people in Guam. Few seem to understand how quality leadership and fairness prevents problems and increases efficiency.

After being fired, I started writing about my experiences, trying to understand what kind of work environment I lived in during my twenty-five years with the Panama Canal Company and why I clashed so violently in Guam. To me, it was obvious that getting the job done should have priority. I discovered, that in abusive environments, getting the job done is not the goal, control is the goal. The workers goal is to resist control. Front line workers seem to enjoy finding ways to keep leaders in a frustrated state. Watching elementary problems grow is what makes a dull job exciting. It is a game that both sides seemed to enjoyed, but no one will admit it.

All companies in Guam had common characteristics:

In 1993, in South Carolina, I was reading an article on a, so-called, newly developed concept, "empowerment and teams." The article described the ideal empowered team and its efficiency. It was describing what I have been working under for the last twenty-five years. I assumed the Panama Canal Company's management style was standard in the United States. At this time, I did not understand why this author considered it new.

I then researched worker empowerment concepts and traced it back from the Panama Canal construction days to the gold rush days in California. I then read current articles by people who clam to be experts. The statements of these experts did not agree with my 25-years of experience or early history. From my point of view and experience, they had no idea what they were writing about. They had no first had experience with empowerment or abusive work environments. The authors' research was based on interviews with CEO's who clamed to have empowered work environments, but with close analyze, this was wishful thinking on the CEO's part and the authors' did not know the difference. Concepts were mostly theories passed on and modified from writer to writer. It was the blind leading the blind.

I then wrote a book titled "There is a Better Way" comparing empowered working environments in Panama with abusive work environments in Guam. I was showing this around for feedback. First, most people had no idea what I was writing about, even human resource managers. Second, for those who did, my machinist background disqualified me for this type of book. Only people with the right kind of formal education, such as Ph.D. or CEO had the right to write on worker empowerment. Dramatic, first hand experiences' do not qualify.

I then encountered salesmen of a motivation program, written by someone with impressive titles that supposedly produced miracle results. The program was endorsed by well-known names in the business. Salesmen would peddle this miracle concept to human resource managers in small companies. I told these salesmen that these concepts are garbage. The reply came back, "who are you to question a concept by a Ph.D. or the endorsements?" None of these people I talked to had any idea of empowerment concepts or motivation in the workplace. They used phrases with impressive sounding words with no personal understanding. The people who bought the program had no real understanding of empowerment concepts either, except for the rhetoric of the salesmen.

I realized the goal was NOT to offer systems that worked, but systems that were simple to understand and sounded logical. The classic formula, the front line had to adapt while management maintained the status quo, just what management wanted to hear. Managers are the one's who authorize consultant or service fees, workers don't. Managers don't want to change their methods, they want others to. 

Authors receive high service fees and sells books. If the author's ideas don't work, it isn't his fault; the front line was to blame for being rebellious or some other reason. After all, they are the ones who are supposed to change, accept new concepts without input. The fact is, programs that work start with the CEO making adjustments in his leadership style. Employees react to leadership style. If efficiency is not up to par, change the leadership style and subordinates will follow.

Making contact with blue-collar companies in South Carolina, I noticed that craftsmen only take orders and have limited input. They are treated like the helpers'. I realized then that a machinist has a low social standing and is considered a puppet. I then concluded, people who are treated as puppets will think and act as puppets, people who are treated as engineers will think and act as engineers. Formal education is not the controlling factor. Social prejudice maintains and enforces the knowledge gap between engineers and puppets. Self-fulfilling prophecy proves social prejudice concepts to be correct.

At this point, I asked myself another puzzling question. What is education and what is intelligence? I am self-educated, I worked most of my life with people in third world countries that were self-educated and the people I worked with were highly motivated. Don't people in the United States understand the importance of self-education? I then wrote another book titled "The Self-Educated Man." Showing this book around for feedback, I was told only college educated people has the right to write about education. Because I do not have proper formal education, my views are unacceptable. Again, experience does not count, only socially acceptable titles. The term "self-education" did not seem to register. Education is related to the classroom only.

The next question, "If non-college people can think and act like engineers, how are they educated?" In teams! Team education! People who share knowledge are learning. Finding ways to get things done is motivation and motivated people learn fast. Engineers share knowledge, that's why they can make quality decisions. The fact is, anyone who shares knowledge can make quality decisions. People who only take orders learn nothing; they have no bases on which to make quality decisions.

This led to another question. If teams and empowerment are so efficient, why isn't everyone using it? Motivational speakers praise its efficiency and give examples of how high school dropouts make quality decisions when given opportunity. Why do leaders pay big money to hear these speakers and ignore their advice? The desire for CONTROL! Control is more important to leaders that efficiency. Control is job security, a feeling of being indispensable. Social prejudice is another factor. How can a leader, who paid $50,000 for a college education, turn decision-making responsibility over to someone who does not have a high school education? The manager has to protect his investment at all cost. The thought that a non-college front line worker can offer quality information is unacceptable. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart stores talks about this in his book, "Made in America." In the early days, his non-college managers out performed his college educated managers. Non-college managers communicated with the front line while college educated managers created social barriers.

True empowerment is moving responsibility down the chain of command, ending at the front line. True education is team members sharing knowledge to achieve a common goal. Motivation is related to participating in decision-making. Motivated people find ways to do the impossible. High efficiency is the result.

Some of the reasons why more companies don't empower their employees:

Delegating responsibility is contrary to human nature. Man's desire for power and control is stronger than money, profits or a smooth running operation. The desire for control clashes with efficiency in the workplace. Wide profit margins or lack of competitors allows leaders to be abusive and sloppy, as I discovered in Guam. Shrinking profit margins force management to learn how to lead. In most organizations, management's ability to give up control goes no further than to create a reasonable profit margin. It takes a visionary at the top to challenge human nature. Only a CEO can inspire a super motivated work environment.

Having a tall ship captain's license and being a member of the American Sail Training Association, I decided to go to their annual conference. Suddenly I was with a large group of people who had experiences similar to mine. Motivation, teams, empowerment, self-education were commonly understood, a natural byproduct of life aboard a tall ship. Conference speakers had wide-ranging sea experiences and their analyses were the same as mine. I realized then that I had to take my project to the maritime world. These people understand motivation, delegating responsibility and true team concepts.

I then went to writing another book titled "Elements of Motivation." No one has challenged me on the validity of this subject. My adventure projects display my ability to be motivated and to be a winner. I also started to promote a tall ship project for Charleston, SC. Someday I will have a training program that motivates people and work environments to excel. It is a matter of training leaders to replace their desire for control with delegation of responsibility.

A reader of my web pages writes, "Your logic blows me away."

I am a technician and technicians work with mechanical logic, that is, it works or does not work, there's no wishful thinking or contrived theories. Why society has limited exposure to this type of logic is that technicians do not write books, intellectuals do. Intellectuals can believe anything they want, write about intellectual theories and there is no way to prove them right or wrong. Their experiences do not force them to bend their ideas to right and wrong thinking.

If it were not for the computer, my perspective and analyses from a technical background would never be on paper. I cannot put clear thoughts on paper, but I can put them on a computer screen. The secret is the editing process. As more technicians, like me, publish their experiences, society will reevaluate natural talent and the education process. At this time, intellectuals are in control and society base intelligence on their skills - people who can express their thoughts clearly on paper.

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