The Wholesaler: “Leadership as Vision”

By Dr. Don McNeeley, PVF and economics specialist

Some are born to lead, most are not. Some aspire to lead, most cannot. 

With that foundation, I reflect on my many years as a leader. When one engages in a retrospective reflection of his academic pursuits, few remember their favorite or least favorite courses. However, most will remember a favorite teacher — and the one they despised. Ahhh…the joys of leadership. 

Leadership could be defined as the ability to guide or inspire “others,” or to deliver others to a goal. Those “others” come with both baggage and personalities, and, often, the personalities are the baggage. Insert personalities and life immediately becomes more complex. 

In leadership, people will bring you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows throughout your life. So what? Suck it up and, by all means, lead. There is nothing more frustrating in life than to see one given the leadership stewardship of others, only to have them not lead.

Leadership is sacrosanct in my book. Others have entrusted their faith in your abilities. You, as leader, are responsible for the delivery of the followers to the premeditated outcome. 

A famous quote notes “life’s a journey, not a destination.” And it is the leader who is responsible for that very journey. 

Leadership is effectively summarized in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” 

That’s it! Leadership is vision, and vision is different from simply managing the here and now. The road to ruin is paved with good intentions of incompetent and incapable leaders. After all, why do 44% of all business launches not survive the first generation, another 40% fail in the second, and yet another 15% fail in the third? Only one out of every 100 businesses reaches its centennial. 

In the evolution of any organization, there are periodic points of inflection where a business plan, model or objective must be rethought. The ubiquitous assault of destructive technology makes this a daily reality on shop floors and in boardrooms. Leadership must envision and anticipate those critical points of inflection. More importantly, leadership must guide the troops through those all-too-critical points of inflection.

Leadership is an honor. What better endorsement or validation of your ability is there than to have another place his/her trust in you? 

Be aware, however, that leadership is not a spectator sport. When given the opportunity to lead, by all means, do so. You must involve — actually immerse — yourself.

Often leadership has all the characteristics of being a contact sport. You must, at times, ruffle feathers, address and confront and make unpopular decisions. In the evolution of one’s leadership career, there will be times when you feel you are the greatest leader the world has ever experienced and, alternately, times when you question your ability and relevancy. Neither one of those periods last very long, thus, the emotional roller coaster of leadership. 

When we think of great leaders, who comes to mind? Generals 

MacArthur and Patton? Presidents Roosevelt, Truman or Reagan? Chancellor Churchill or Prime Minister Thatcher? How about CEO Jack Welch of G.E.? Howard Schultz of Starbucks? Steve Jobs of Apple? Jeff Bezos of Amazon? 

Then again, why not Hitler? Leader? Yes. Great leader? Absolutely not! Yet, he had a leadership DNA that was successful in getting an entire nation to carry out his diabolical plan. He met an appropriate death — just six million human lives too late. 

So while leading is getting people to buy into vision, great leadership appropriately burdens the process with an ethical platform and moral compass. 

While I refer to the demonic Hitler for shock value, what about Kenneth Lay of Enron, Bernard Ebbers of MCI or Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco? So many — in fact, too many — leaders have lost their way. To the leaders who are inadequately equipped, thus temporarily wearing little more than veneer of leadership, the ethical facade soon gives way to the Machiavellian approach of the end justifying the means.

Unless you are prepared to lead, please don’t. Leadership is both an opportunity and an obligation. Our nation needs great leaders. Yet, they are a vanishing breed.

In this era of pre-meditated, pre-packaged car-pooled childhoods of organized “everything,” from where will the next generation of leaders who think for themselves emerge? 
Leadership, when done right, is a beautiful thing. It is a life of relevancy, complete with legacy implications. 

In life, one leads or one follows. While leadership is a challenge, if one is prepared, it is always better to lead than to be led. Too often people see the trappings of leadership — the power, the compensation, the lifestyle. As a CEO, I can command our employees to move 3 feet to the right. I can look up from my desk to see hundreds, if not thousands, of employees moving 3 feet to the right. How intoxicating! 

However, what is not evident is the leader’s turmoil — the pressure, the post mortem, the autopsy of decisions or the elusive peace of mind. For example, what keeps the leader awake at night is the reflection, the retrospection, the ubiquitous second guessing. What if his/her people should NOT have moved 3 feet to the right? What if they should have moved 3 feet to the left? Or perhaps, not even moved at all? 

To the naïve, one might say, “Just move them back.” However, in corporate reality, you can’t move them ALL back. 

The mistake comes with a price, and that price is attrition. In a military or medical situation, perhaps that price is paid not with jobs, but lives. For the 100 you moved the wrong way, only 80 are coming back. You’ve essentially played a game of chess, but the pawns were real people in real lives. Your mistake was paid for, first and foremost, by others.

I’m not sure whether leadership is nature or nurture, a result of birth order, intelligence or emotional I.Q. For me, it was following the Golden Rule.

Give people a voice, give them respect and celebrate our differences more than our similarities. Do not fall into or evolve into a management role, but rather premeditate the process and prepare. By all means, prepare for the role.

Outside of my vocation as CEO of a steel company, I enjoy a professorship at Northwestern University — an elite university where I teach the capstone course in the graduate school. My students are truly the best in the world — they will go places, do things, and make a difference in their lives and the lives of many others. 

The risk of that talent is that very fine line between competence and arrogance. The entitlement of elitism must be kept in check. Through my capstone course —the last before students depart with Masters or Ph.D.’s in hand — I introduce the cleaning lady, who readies our room each week. I introduce her by name three or four times throughout the course. 

The final question on their exam — in effect, the final question of their academic journey — is “Please identify the name of our cleaning lady.”

As most cannot answer the question correctly, it serves the intended purpose — humility! Others quickly appeal, debating the fairness of the question (but with a 0% success rate!)

Remember, as your leadership career evolves, success — with all the trappings and the accolades and the adoration, both real and feigned by others — please keep people in your life who will keep you grounded. 

Everyone needs someone that will call you on your bullshit.

Good luck! Now, go lead.


Dr. Don McNeeley
Dr. Don McNeeley

Dr. Donald McNeeley is President and CEO of Chicago Tube and Iron Co., headquartered in Romeoville, Ill., as well as a Professor of Engineering at Northwestern University. Founded in 1914, CT&I is one of the largest steel service centers in the U.S., with 10 subsidiaries throughout the Midwest. Inventory, fabrication and processing is facilitated in over 1.2 million square feet of efficient, state-of-the-art facilities. CT&I houses over 30,000 line items of inventory from some of the world’s premier manufacturers. It has a 90+ year history of consecutive profitability that has provided the necessary capital resources for growth. Contact Dr. McNeeley at (800) 972-0217, or visit

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