Defining the Really Great Boss, by M. David Dealy, VP Transportation, BNSF

There’s a reason the early railroads followed a military management style. The Military Model is particularly well-suited to running an organization with lots of moving parts spread across a wide geographic area. The platoon leader out on patrol with nothing to connect him with HQ but a cell phone is much like a section gang leader or even a train conductor.

Both origanizations have to entrust lots of very expensive equipment to a cadre of officers and men operating independently but within a strict set of rules and regulations covering everything from latrines to nuclear weapons, from spike mauls to high speed, high density mainline trains. Think, if you will, of a factory 10 to 1000 miles long and rarely more than 100 feet wide with little more than ties and rails on most of it.  

The common thread is one of leadership and managing change. In a combat environment the quality of leadership can directly affect whether one lives or dies. In railroad operations it’s not quite so dire, though failure to follow the leadership’s safety directives can get one killed. And therin lies the strength of being an effective leader, or “boss” if you will.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines “boss” as one who “one who employs or superintends workmen” and a leader as “one who leads, a guiding or directing head.” Clearly it is implicit on one who leads to guide and direct those in his employ, ergo boss implies leader, one upon whom the lives of people -- or organizations -- may depend.

A manager on the other hand, says Random House, is one “who manipulates or controls resources and expenditures,” from the verb manage, “to direct, govern or control in action or use.” It’s a fine line, to be sure, but one of critical importance in a new management book, Defining the Really Great Boss, by Dave Dealy, BNSF Vice President of Transportation.

At the very outset Dealy warns that “great bosses are NOT (his emphasis) great managers. And the reason is? “Managers assure that the programs and the objectives of the organization are implemented. Being a great boss has to do with casting vision.”

That is not to say bosses (or leaders) don’t or can’t manage. The Dealy Difference is that the mere manager uses authority from above and his own clout to get things done; the great boss relies on his own reputation and ability to facilitate and encourage change in the organization.

Dealy writes, “Managers deal away their credibility because they manage according to the numbers at all cost, even when it is obvious that the decision is detrimental to the greater good.” On the other hand, “great bosses look for the circumstances they want and when they cannot find them they make them.” And “People perform according to what’s expected of them.” The boss who expects little from himself can’t complain if his direct reports are underachieving. No vision, no expectation, no performance.

Rich Timmons, President of the American Shortline and Regional Railroad Association, is a retired Army three-star general and we’ve touched on the differences between leadership and management a time or two. Says Rich, an organization either changes from within because someone or something forces the issue or some outsider comes in and bangs heads until they get it right.

Timmons point goes directly to vision, or mission in the military sense. The importance of vision cannot be overemphasized. If there is no vision, there can be no core business objective. In my consulting practice it’s the first thing I look for in client companies. If I ask the owner to explain his business in 25 words or less and he can’t we’re in trouble because if the leader doesn’t know what to expect from himself, how will his people know what’s expected of them?

Dave Dealy’s core message is the link between The Vision and Leadership. He writes, “The five skills that define the truly great boss receive their direction and mandate from the vision of the organization.” At its core the vision of an organization is what dictates

  • Doing the right things for the right reasons
  • Where to set your expectations
  • What kind of risks to take and mistakes to avoid.
  • What kind of action plans and solutions you should take to your boss.
  • How to follow up.

As an example of what not to do in terms of vision, Dealy cites the Enron website slogan, “It’s really hard to explain what Enron does.” No wonder the company imploded. If “vision is the covenant between the organization and its stakeholders” then logically there must be a shared vision of what makes the organization excellent.

Throughout the book, a well-written tome of a little more than 100 pages, Dealy takes us on a fascinating journey that is both a delightful read and an object lesson in drilling down and finding teaching opportunities in a myriad of situations. The recurring theme is one of building on mistakes (never make the same one twice), following up, and managing change.

After all, it was Dawin who said it’s not the strongest who survive but the ones most responsive to change.


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