Blue collar. White collar. Some do not know these phrases. They can be read as a distinction between lower and upper classes, or between workers and managers. In the beginning there was the worker. The solitary craftsman performing his trade. Doing an honest job. When business picks up, he hires more craftsmen. When the club grows further, a necessity emerges for a more highly educated individual overseeing the whole process. Enter the manager. It is becoming a real company now. To manage the increasing paperwork and finances, an administration is established. Enter the bureaucracy. The company is getting top heavy now.
I have always been a somewhat mid-level educated blue collar worker. At times during my several careers, I was given a taste of management, on both sides of the fence. Mostly doing my own job but also managing others. When managing, I always made sure I was in close touch with the workers, learn what they know from the ground up, work alongside, assisting if necessary, playing second violin when needed. Because that co-worker knows more than I do. Managers are not necessarily leaders and leaders do not necessarily become managers. Finding the two combined is a rarity. I happen to know of one. His name is Robin Olds.
Robin was an all-American veteran fighter pilot who had started his flying career in World War Two. He became a multiple ‘Ace’, member of the illustre community of fighter jocks who had shot down five or more adversaries. As a natural he also became a leader, Squadron Commander. After that war, Robin was posted all over the place, commanding units, flying his butt off. Until the ‘Bomber Generals’ in the Pentagon saw no necessity for this outspoken hands-on fighter pilot anymore. They ‘buried’ Robin in the confines of the Pentagon. The ‘worker’ was stashed away by the ‘managers’. All the way through the Korean War.
In the 1960’s, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Things were not going well, both on the ground and in the air. Lack of efficiency, effectiveness and low morale plagued the American troops, due to flawed policies and directives, imposed by ‘managers’ such as politicians and Pentagon Generals. This is when the old-school, hands-on Robin was pulled out of the Pentagon dungeons and dusted off. As a Colonel, Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack’, stationed at Ubon RTAB in Thailand. Immediately, Robin dug deep into all processes of that big unit, first as an ‘apprentice’, later on as a leader.
To the ‘managers’ in DC, Olds, the maverick unorthodox veteran fighter jock, had become a necessity to crank up results. By being ‘one of the guys’, by staying ‘blue collar’, by learning all trades and processes, Robin won the hearts and minds of his men. He made no distinction between the kitchen cooks, ground crews, planners and fellow fighter jocks. He valued all disciplines and made sure that all his men knew that he and he alone was responsible. They could count on the fact that the bucket stopped with Robin. He was a ‘manager’ but not one of those who operated from behind the lines. You would find him at the front, as a real leader.
After Vietnam, rebellious Robin was promoted out of harm’s way and became Commander of the USAF Academy before retiring as a Brigadier General in the 1970’s. Again, to the Pentagon ‘managers’, he had served his purpose. There was no need for this outspoken real leader anymore. And this is my point: all this can be be readily translated to the Corporate World. With Robin as a ‘guru’ in the back of my mind, I am witnessing the same discrepancies between ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’. I see the same mistakes being made by the Corporate higher-ups. Regrettably, the ‘rules of engagements’ are fairly identical.
It seems that the manager has become more important than the worker these days. To me, this is not logical at all. Especially when managers have not climbed the corporate ladder from the inside, starting out as a worker, sweating it out at the bottom of the food chain, learning, getting a feel for whatever product the company produces. Today’s manager is recruited from the outside. Hired, based on diplomas and certificates which mean nothing on the ‘floor’. ‘Business, not personal’ is the name of the game. A sort of impersonal approach is required in order to make ‘hard’ decisions. Receiving a salary far exceeding the blue collar’s wages.
This way, corporations have become top heavy. Full of managers, many creating their own Kingdoms. The workers at the bottom are not required to think, they are required to just work. Depending on the product, that work requires special skills. The worker builds up an entire skill set, based on practise, that far exceeds a manager’s mostly theoretical skill set. In my book, the worker is the ground soldier, whisking away his product from the Gates of Hell. He is in the line of fire, suffering all the blows. The manager, behind his office desk, is that commander behind the lines. Providing less, costing more. A very unhealthy structure.
The Wolfpack were blessed to have Robin. He was sent as a ‘manager’ and manifested himself as genuine natural leader. Not afraid of getting dirty hands. For him, it was not just business but really personal as well. Robin was worth way more than his Officer’s salary. And because of his way of leading the Pack up front, he made his comrades reach their full potential and shine. Because they themselves wanted to, not told to. Leadership like that exposes the workers for what they really are: the most valuable asset in any organisation. A manager may be necessary these days. But, he or she’d better be a real binding leader…
One of my favorite Robin Olds quotes on Leadership:
“Here's what I learned over the years. Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know those people, their attitudes and expectations. Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions. Don't be shy. Learn what each does, how the parts fit into the whole. Find out what supplies and equipment are lacking, what the workers need. To whom does each shop chief report? Does that officer really know the people under him, is he aware of their needs, their training? Does that NCO supervise or just make out reports without checking facts? Remember, those reports eventually come to you. Don't try to bullshit the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you'll shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Correct without revenge or anger. Recognize accomplishment. Reward accordingly. Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans, and never at the expense of another unit. It won't take long, but only your genuine interest and concern, plus follow-up on your promises, will earn you respect. Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God's sake, don't ever try to be popular! That weakens your position, makes you vulnerable. Don't have favorites. That breeds resentment. Respect the talents of your people. Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give the authority to go with it. Again, make clear to your troops you are the one who'll take the heat.”
― Brig. Gen. Rtd. Robin Olds, USAF –