TERRIBLE TRUTHS

It's no secret that the industry is in the throes of a sea of change perhaps unlike any before seen, and that the discovery of a new style of leadership is now incumbent upon its practitioners. Since everyone knows that, I'm sure I could find a way to remain silent on such an overexposed topic if it weren't for the fact that one of the best presentations on the imperatives of leadership I've heard

It's no secret that the industry is in the throes of a sea of change perhaps unlike any before seen, and that the discovery of a new style of leadership is now incumbent upon its practitioners. Since everyone knows that, I'm sure I could find a way to remain silent on such an overexposed topic if it weren't for the fact that one of the best presentations on the imperatives of leadership I've heard lately was made at last week's annual convention of the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association.

The opus on leadership was rendered up by James A. Belasco, a specialist on leadership who has written a couple of books on the matter, the latest of which has a title that's seemingly as long as its content: "Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead." In speaking to the NAWGA convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Belasco identified four "terrible truths" that are especially pertinent for this time of change. Here they are in truncated form: · Success is the enemy: This theory holds that what got us to where we are today is probably useless to move us into the future. The idea here is that the food business isn't a quiet place anymore, especially since Wal-Mart Stores surfaced as a competitor. That operator showed how to derive profit from logistics, the very business wholesalers are in. So the lesson is, "What worked yesterday won't work today, and if I do what worked then, I will fail."

· We used to know what the problem was. It was "they." Now we don't know what the problem is.

Here Belasco means that it used to be easy to blame the problems of an organization on something else, such as governmental regulations, customers that fail to see the wisdom of a merchandising effort, or employees who won't work.

Now it's apparent that the problem is with the basics of organization. Most organizations now are like herds (here's where the buffalo stuff comes in). A herd -- say a herd of buffalo -- knows no more than to wait around for a chance to follow the leader, the same leader who, because of the insulating effect of leadership, may not know what the problem is, let alone the solution. The lesson here is to supplant the herd-like organization with one more like that of a flock of geese in flight, each member of which contributes to the formation and can switch in and out of leadership as need be. · To accomplish the change to a "flock" organization, the nature of leadership must change. This, no doubt, is the most difficult change to effect, although it seems simple enough. The nature of this change is for the leader to encourage others to lead, which is just the formula the industry needs at this time. In short, it means members of the organization must become responsible for their own success. This type of management will pave the way for the success of Efficient Consumer Response, says Belasco.

· The final terrible truth is that there is no road map that any leader can follow to achieve the type of change for which this formula calls. "There is no one who can tell you what will happen or what it will be like. You have to find out by taking the first step," he says.