What I Learned on my Journey to Leadership


In 1986, Robert Fulghum published a compilation of essays divulging life lessons. His well-known book is titled, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” Three years prior to this book’s release, I completed my degree in Industrial Engineering and started working at my first job in manufacturing in Waco, Texas. I learned a lot from that job, most importantly, I think, being what I learned about leadership. If I were to publish a book today, it would be titled, “All I really need to know about leadership, I learned in Manufacturing… from a guy named John.”

“Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain,
but there in the sand pile at Sunday school.”

An Unexpected Lesson

Forman Book

In 1983, with the Texas economy in recession due to the decline in the oil business, as a recent college graduate, I was fortunate to have work. An Industrial Engineer works to eliminate waste through Process Improvement (Sound familiar?). The concept came easily to me and it has always been my passion. This was a job that you normally worked independently, and in many manufacturing plants, you worked without a team.

So what does that have to do with leadership?  Little did I know!

After a couple of days on the job, my boss informed me that the prior industrial engineer also managed the maintenance crew. He felt that I should do the same. Not even knowing what that would mean, I eagerly agreed.

Later that day, a very large man came into my office, sat down, took out a cigarette (yes, you could do that in the 80’s) and, without introducing himself, said, “[Heck]! I have tools older than you.”

Now with a lit cigarette, he realized I did not have an ashtray. This became a little comical as he used my empty coffee cup.

I came to find out after several other questions that he was the foreman of the maintenance crew and his name was John.

Eventually, John agreed to introduce me to the team. As as we walked to the maintenance office, he casually mentioned that union rules state that the penalty for striking anyone (including your new boss) is three days suspension without pay, for the first offense. He also added that none of his crew had made use of their first offense.

Note to self. I replied “Wow! Three days without pay,” trying to make it sound like a big punishment.

He replied, “Gives people more time to go fishing.”

Earning Leadership

Eventually, over time, I won John and the team over by working alongside them. I had to be in the office from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday, so I would check in with my boss and then go out to see what projects maintenance was working on that day: welding up a cooling tower or fixing a piece of equipment.

Before I can reveal my list of the things I learned about leadership (in manufacturing), there is one more event that has stuck with me throughout my entire career. One Saturday, we were troubleshooting a piece of equipment that had stopped working. I was sure it was the solenoid that was the problem and wanted to have the maintenance person I was working with check with his voltmeter.  It was 480V distribution voltage, but I was sure the solenoid was only 24V or lower. I was very close to him as we were inspecting this machine when he pulled out the probes on the voltmeter and then stepped on my foot.

With some measure, he asked me one last time, “Are you sure now?”

The end of this story is that after several years in my position the plant went on strike, but every one of the maintenance workers crossed the picket line to maintain the plant.

So what did I learn about leadership?

  1. Assumption of authority is a myth, real leadership is earned.
  2. Evaluate all candid criticism provided and not the messenger……Thanks, John.
  3. Respect the team and earn the respect of the team through your character and integrity.
  4. Be unique as a manager, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
  5. Don’t forget where you started.
  6. Make every decision as if you are standing next to the person with the hot wire.

Ed Toner is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo John Burton

Great article Ed! As part of my development plan this year I’ve been reaching out to senior people in my organization and asking their advice because I want to be a leader. I hear a lot of the same wisdom from them.