Two Construction Professionals Consulting a Plan / Daniel

We pump concrete in a local ammunition plant on a consistent basis; it is run by the U.S. Army and security is tight. Guards carrying assault rifles stand watch over us as we pass through their gates. They inspect our truck and pump, even looking under our vehicle with mirrors. Government jobs move at a different pace, but I quickly learned a few valuable insights into leading people while being there.

One day, one of the contractors we’ve pumped for inside the ammunition plant had us placing concrete in a column that was three stories tall. We had to lower our hoses down inside the forms to keep the concrete from tumbling and separating over the rebar. That’s normal. What wasn’t normal to me was the fact that the carpenters didn’t overlap (lace) the outside corners of the walers on their Symons forms. When I mentioned the risk of a blowout to the young field engineer who ran the project, he responded that his lead carpenter said everything was fine. It wasn’t. Once the concrete was nearly 8 feet up, you can guess what started to happen.

Over the next month, this same scenario played out about three more times with that contractor. Eventually, after we set up our hoses they would ask me if I saw any potential problems. I’d point them out, the lead carpenter would say everything was fine, and then there would be a blowout.

It seemed no matter how I phrased the need to add stiff-backs, lace their walers, or use more kickers, they either ignored me or their feelings got hurt. Their lead carpenter was insecure, just like his project manager. Last I heard, their reputation has tanked and that company hasn’t won any further bids in the plant.

But there is another contractor we pump for even more often in the ammunition plant, and their crew has a healthier perspective on work. This other crew is eager to learn and grow, and to be effective. Last week, while we were pumping a slab for them, we were nearing the end and I asked the lead finisher if he wanted to turn around, screed back in the opposite direction he was just coming from, then turn and come out of the pour.

I didn’t “boss” him around, I left it all up to him asking him, “What do you think?” He quickly saw what was the best course of action and moved on my “suggestion.” I thought nothing of it—I find myself doing this almost weekly with younger finishers.

Their superintendent was standing behind me, and he leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I like how you didn’t tell him what to do, but you got your point across by asking and he listened. I like how you did that.”

Before I finally tell you what I believe is the goal of leadership, I’ll tell you what these experiences have taught me about leadership. First, we all find ourselves leading others even when we aren’t in a “position” of leadership. None of the concrete crews in the ammunition plant work “for” me—I’m just the pumper. I’m working for them, yet I’m guiding some of them using of my excess amount of earned experience. Second, when I was a young laborer, most of our foremen simply barked orders and we respectfully jumped to attention. These days, in what would seem like weakness to my generation’s leaders, you have to be willing to adapt your approach to communication when it comes to leadership. It seems like we have to ask more questions to lead people more effectively.

Here’s what I believe is the ultimate goal of leadership: To get people to think for themselves. To make this point more nuanced, get them to think like us, to see the plans like we do, and to act as we would if we were in their place. If we can teach our crews to think properly for themselves and use a little more common sense, our need to communicate our requests diminishes, even to the point where we don’t give “orders” anymore because we will have taught our team how to think effectively. I think that’s a goal worth pursuing.