Leadership lessons from the forge

Getting 2005 off on the right foot

January 11, 2005
By: Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

One of the benefits of coaching individuals and teams across the country is that I have the opportunity to meet bright, insightful, and creative people. The inspiration and much of the content of this article come from one of those people—Bob Nichols.

Bob Nichols is a metallurgist in the steel industry. He also is a part-time blacksmith on the weekends. In the midst of one of his weekendcreations, he began to draw a parallel between the blacksmith and leadership. Since Bob and I talked often about leadership skills (or the lack of these skills) he sent me his insights. His first statement caught my attention immediately: "Forging is a lot like leadership—the basics can be learned quickly, but the mastery takes a lifetime." Admittedly, these correlations are the fundamentals of leadership. Hopefully, this article will serve as a reminder of the importance of leadership and how to start the new year off with the basics in mind.

Before You Light the Fire, Know What You Want to Make

The blacksmith realizes how important it is to know what he wants to make before he lights the fire. It's difficult to know when you are finished, if you don't start with a clear plan for what you intend to make. Once the plan is established, the blacksmith goes through a series of processes designed to achieve his goal.

Warren Bennis said, "Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality." I heard another leader state it this way: "Good luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation."

As a leader, developing vision and goals— what you want to make— clearly is your responsibility. Without clear vision and achievable goals, a team's efforts are disconnected. If the vision for the company is unclear, frustration and mistrust arise and often place people and departments at odds with one another.

You can't assume that everyone shares your vision immediately. Repeated exposure may be necessary to ensure that everyone understands and makes a commitment to the vision and company goals. If positive results are going to be achieved, the plan must be broken down into manageable tasks.

Gather the Right Tools and Materials Before You Begin

After the blacksmith has decided on the project, he must gather the right tools and the appropriate materials, plus remove all the clutter from around the forge, before beginning.

Leaders who are action-oriented often plunge into activity before they consider what and who are required to get the job done. The attitude for some has been, "Do something, anything, even if it's wrong." Ill-considered activity is a waste of energy, time, and resources. In Jim Collins' book Good to Great, he states that leaders need to decide who is going to be on the organizational bus and whether those people are in the right seats to accomplish the company's vision.

Surround yourself with the right people to get the job done. The wrong people serve only to complicate the task and often drain the organization's energy. The right people will be committed to the vision, but also willing to disagree with the leader, if necessary.

Stay focused on the vision and goals to be accomplished. All other extraneous distractions (such as power plays, egos, and insecurities) need to be removed. They only serve to decrease energy and distract people from the intended goals.

Heat up the Forge Before You Put the Iron in the Fire

The blacksmith knows that putting iron in a cold forge just takes longer to get the heat up.

Some leaders tend to have the vision in their heads and to expect people to know what they are thinking. Big mistake. People have more energy and commitment to vision if they know exactly what you want to achieve.

Take the time to heat up your team by sharing the vision. Discuss the purpose and benefits of the vision or project, and allow others to incorporate their ideas and suggestions.

Resist the pressure to move too quickly to show immediate progress before people comprehend exactly what is to be achieved. It's possible to maintain a sense of urgency tempered with reason and consideration of your team.

Introduce the Iron to the Fire Slowly and Patiently

A good blacksmith realizes that sudden exposure to high heat can warp or crack some steels. Therefore, he takes care in introducing the iron to the fire a little at a time.

Throwing people into the heat before they are ready is a formula for disaster. Spend time evaluating the team's strengths and weaknesses. Make assignments that are appropriate for each member's strengths. If specialized strengths are needed, see to it that the right person receives that specialized training before you begin the project.

Kindle the fire under your team slowly and build it to a high heat by being generous with encouragement and praise.

Stay Focused on the Needs of the People and the Project

The blacksmith learns by experience that if he drops a piece of hot iron on his foot once, he won't do it again. He must maintain constant focus on the project and how he is using his tools.

Pay attention to what you and your team are doing. A good leader knows what is supposed to be happening and can compare that knowledge to what actually is taking place on his team.

Focus allows you to view the possible outcome of current endeavors and make appropriate decisions in a timely manner. If the project gets out of control, the sooner you recognize it, the easier it will be to recover.

Reheat the Steel As Often As Necessary

The blacksmith takes get pleasure in working with properly heated steel. When the steel is soft and easy to form, it requires minimal effort on his part. He also keeps the heat at forging temperature, because overheating can ruin the steel.

Take time to energize people often. When people are properly energized, they are a pleasure to work with.

Maintain a balance between keeping the organizational temperature high and not overheating your people with pressure, criticism, and judgment.

Finish Each Anvil Pass by Straightening the Workpiece

Blacksmiths work the steel by making small, midcourse corrections that are easier than making one big effort when the job nears completion.

Flexibility is the name of the game if you are to adjust to unexpected obstacles. Midcourse corrections will prevent a major overhaul at the end of a project.

Continuously communicating and coordinating with team members are important. Doing so allows you to gage the project's progress accurately. Use meetings, e-mails, and face-to-face time to encourage one another and to sustain the group energy.

Forge It Thick and Grin It Thin

The blacksmith knows there is a beautiful work of art buried beneath the black surface of the steel. He spends a lot of effort and energy to forge the steel to a desired shape when the iron is hot, but does the final finishing work with a light touch.

Your patience and perseverance will bring out the best in people and ensure the success of any project. Beginning a project requires a great deal of effort; however, as the project develops, you need to encourage people to reflect on minor revisions and improvements to create the exact outcome they desire.

Cool the Iron Slowly and Gently

Cooling the iron in this fashion allows it to remain straight and malleable. The blacksmith knows that as the steel cools, it loses energy, but cooling too fast creates stress that can distort the steel.

Making hasty conclusions and precipitous departures from the plan usually spell failure for a team. You need to maintain calm and help everyone stay focused on the plan. However, the high energy level needed to accomplish the project occasionally needs to be reduced. It serves you well to get the team together for an occasional non-work-related event and focus on the emotional needs of the team.

Polish and Finish the Project Appropriately

The blacksmith knows that polishing the completed project brings out the shine.

If you are to bring people to a high level of energy, it is imperative that you celebrate the successful completion of a project. Doing so creates the energy and enthusiasm needed for the next project.

Bob's last statement to me on the correlation between blacksmithing and leadership was as powerful as the first one he made: "Iron resists us, that's its nature. It can be shaped by brute force or by finesse. Finesse will leave fewer hammer marks and achieve a more pleasing result."

Leaders influence and impact people either negatively or positively. Take care this year to review the fundamentals of positive leadership to energize your organization.

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

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