All Articles Leadership Management You don’t need leaders in an operational world

You don’t need leaders in an operational world

3 min read


I am a simple, straight-forward operations guy. I’ve read about leadership. It’s of no use to me.

It might be OK for army officers and expedition leaders and even chief executives. They need to create a vision, inspire trust and take people to a place they never thought they would get to. They have it within their gift to define strategies and move organizations to new places.

But if you are a humble operations manager like me, you run a factory or a call center or a depot. It’s not like you’re going anywhere. Where exactly are you going to lead your employees to?

Where will you lead them?

If you look after an operation, what does the land of milk and honey look like?

  • It is a place where your costs are low.
  • It is a place where your customer service is high.
  • And a place where your quality is impeccable.

It doesn’t matter if you make pizzas, repair cars or sell insurance for a living. The top of the mountain always looks the same: it is cheaper, faster and better than where you are at the moment.

But that place doesn’t exist —  haven’t you heard the old adage?

  • Cheap and fast, it won’t be good.
  • Good and cheap, sure ain’t fast.
  • Fast and good, never going to be cheap.

Now I can guess what you are thinking. It is a tough leadership challenge to avoid that wild goose chase. You are thinking that running an operation must take some serious leadership and visionary thinking.

Visionary thinking is the last thing you need

In truth, operations are really very simple to manage. Despite what people will tell you, it is quite easy to improve cost, service and quality all in one fell swoop. You simply have to do three things:

  1. Be really clear what you are here to do. What is your customer paying you for?
  2. Identify all the things that get in the way of you being able to do it — all the things that don’t work, all the policies that don’t make sense, all the issues that cause rework, all the holdups and errors.
  3. Fix them.

Operations managers are the “flat earthers” of business. They just have to be crystal-clear about what is important and then remove the things that get in the way, with dogged determination.

This is all about getting your act together. This is all about good management.

It has nothing to do with leadership.

The sting in the tail

Of course, there is a twist. To run an operation well, you need a person who is downright determined to do the simple, straight-forward management stuff — someone who won’t get distracted by all that is new and shiny, someone who can repel the latest leadership fad and stick to the knitting.

Unfortunately, having that level of clarity, that ability to keep your team on the straight and narrow, is not easy. It takes real leadership.

James Lawther is an operations manager. Learn more about process improvement and operations management at Lawther’s website,