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17th Century Leadership Lessons for 21st Century Managers
 

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It's amazing what you can learn about managing people from the 17th century. In the eight-episode run of the PBS series "Colonial House," a group of colonists went through two leaders, wandering through their own kind of wilderness before the right kind of leader showed up in the end.

I've always sort of loved to watch these historical reality series on PBS. It's pretty neat to watch 21st century people work their ways through daily life in "history." Earnest people working hard. Spending entire days in fields, building their own homes. Talk about Americana.

But this month's debut of Colonial House was a disappointment. It didn't seem the colonists were too happy to be a part of the project. They came. They whined. They accomplished little. I found myself so disinterested in their characters, as one episode bled into the next with painfully little progress. It got old fast.

You can look to the group's leader to find the source of the problem.

When the colonists were each assigned their roles in the community, it was clear tensions would emerge. Initially, everyone seemed to like Jeff Wyers, the governor of the settlement, and accepted him as their leader. But his success didn't lie in any obvious ability to lead: He wasn't a particularly strong leader. No one felt pressure to work too hard, as Wyers didn't seem to crack the whip all too often. Everyone sort of just went through the motions and things moved right along. As long as there were no problems, Wyers was the nice-guy boss and everyone was happy enough.

But once food rations were running low and everyone was tired of working on that house, things changed. The group looked to Wyers to motivate them. Unfortunately, Wyers had his own problems back home in he 21st century (the sad, sudden death of his daughter's fiancť), so perhaps he was distracted. He didn't rally the colonists in a way he should have and wasn't able to help the group find a sure-fire solution before he left for home. As a result, the colony' s debt to the company had been delayed payment for three weeks, morale hit a low and tensions emerged about how the new power structure on the colony would play out.

I believe Wyers wanted to see the colony succeed. I just question whether or not he really knew how to motivate so many different people--how to find that common ground. Maybe the colony lacked structure--people weren't being as efficient as they could have been had the governor organized or distributed responsibility differently. Or perhaps the whole lot of them were just lazy. It's hard to tell because Wyers' time was cut so short. He was only governor for about two-and-a-half episodes.

Enter Don Heinz. Heinz clearly wanted the job of governor once Wyers and his family headed home to attend to their grieving daughter. He was practically foaming at the mouth. Everyone knew it and I think that made it harder for the colonists to fall into line under his leadership. I don't think the colonists were convinced, initially, that Heinz cared as much for the colony as he did for himself and his wife, Carolyn Heinz. I wasn't. (I mean, when Carolyn became the governor's wife, she even made a comment that she felt that she was filling a high-profile role in the colony.)

By this time, the colonists seemed so deflated by their slow progress, it's doubtful they were going to put up much of a fight for a strong finish. Clearly, everyone just wanted to do their time and head back to their couches and SUVs. But, Heinz's glory didn't last too long, as Jack Lecza was close on his heels. When Lecza arrived, he challenged what the colonists had already accomplished. Though he wasn't the governor, he did exert power as a representative from the company that invested in the colony. He made the colonists start looking for alternative food sources like clam-digging and fishing, and he re-focused their attentions on making money for the colony. Lecza was full of ideas.

Lecza was clearly the strongest leader of the three. He saw the colony as a business and treated it as such. (He likened his time there to his real-life experience as CEO.) He wasn't interested in being liked. He was interested in seeing the colony succeed. He worked alongside the colonists (something I don't think Heinz did as well). He brought new ideas and new energy to the colony. This earned him the colonists' trust, and their sweat. It's too bad he didn't show up sooner.

Last updated: May 27, 2004




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