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Lower Echelon Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason
August 11, 2019

Leadership studies still fill college and university curriculum, as the emphasis on leadership is an academic answer to developing the future of the United States. Likewise, leadership training in the corporate world results in sustained revenue for the training industry. Corporations can spend anywhere from $1000 to over $100,00 per person annually on developing leadership. Regardless of the intent of higher education and the corporate environment, leadership development is big business. One only needs to google, “Leadership training,” to find a multitude of seminars, professional development courses and related opportunities that focus on leadership training and related topics such as emotional intelligence and effective leadership.

Academia concentrates on the theories of leading, with programs covering the broad areas of implicit leadership and relational leadership. Complexity leadership, behavioral leadership, multi-level/multi-domain or a combination of the above leadership domains are typically studied. Many doctoral students strive to define a theory of leadership in their dissertations in the hopes of being the next wave of, “The it,” in leadership training.

The corporate world, according to the Chief Learning Officer, looks at leadership through the revenue generating lenses of strategic planning, business acumen, leading innovation and coaching. These skills make the executive leader a better suited person for the challenges of this century. In a supporting role, front line managers view leadership development through the environments of communication, employee engagement and critical thinking.

The federal government views its Senior Executive Service (SES)—senior executive leaders—through its executive core qualifications (ECQ) of:

  • ECQ 1: Leading Change
  • ECQ 2: Leading People
  • ECQ 3: Results Driven
  • ECQ 4: Business Acumen
  • ECQ 5: Building Coalitions

What we have found lacking in our own studies and experience with leadership is that most of the emphasis on leadership concentrates on upper echelon leadership: C-Suite, executive level and middle managers. As administrators, due diligence calls for us to acknowledge and consider lower echelon leadership. A captain can direct the course of a ship, but a person in the bilges makes sure that the helm responds correctly to the wishes of the helmsman, who in turn gets orders from the pilot. Through hierarchy, chain of command and other management concepts, lower echelon leaders may be considered the backbone to any organization. Consider the influence of military personnel serving as chiefs and gunnery sergeants in large complex organizations. Their value and that of other non-commissioned officers are rarely questioned.

While we are pruning and preening our knowledge, skills, abilities, traits and competencies, we are doing this on the backs of the junior-most person in the organization. We often tout the abilities of lower echelon leaders who we discovered, and whom we have taken under our wings as the future of the organization. However, do we really pay attention to the person that has little ambition to promote, or is prevented from promoting due to organizational infrastructure or culture? Do we devalue their leadership? Do we even admit that they have leadership abilities or take note of their presence?

Our notional example is of Sam, the locksmith. As the only person in the organization serving in this role, he does not have promotional opportunity beyond the normal pay increases per his organization’s collective bargaining agreement. Sam was often dismissed in the presence of the leadership as someone only there to fix a lock, make keys or open an accidentally locked door. What the leaders missed was that Sam knew the organization like few people in the organization knew it. When fellow employees made small talk with Sam, he was often asked rhetorical questions as part of the uncomfortable small talk taking place while he was fixing a lock. Sam however, took these questions to heart and gave sage advice. The lower in the echelon the person asking the question was, the more they valued Sam’s advice and tutelage. However, the higher up in the echelon the asker was, the more his idle talk was dismissed or ignored. When things went wrong, lower-level employees often quipped, “Sam saw this coming, why didn’t anyone listen?” In this scenario the C-suite missed out on a valuable leadership resource by dismissing Sam. Why? The administrators simply failed to see a person in coveralls as a leader.

As administrators, the next time you are in the cafeteria, sit down with your Sam and learn about being a leader. Take the time to listen, at all levels and within all disciplines to those in the organization that may whisper truths about how things are really going. Knowing an organization’s true strengths and weaknesses is often not found in a book or spreadsheets. Likewise, employing your organization’s strengths should not come from a consultant but from your people, regardless of their position. Peter Drucker, noted as the father of modern-day management, once said, “People are not on the liability side of your organization’s spreadsheet, they are your greatest asset.” Empowering your lower echelon leaders is a way to develop your greatest people and benefit from your internal strengths.


Authors:

Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Tracy Rickman
Don Mason

All service as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

 

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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