Two Kinds of Foremen, and Only One Makes You Laugh

Mon October 06, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Construction foremen—and field crew managers of any sort—fall into two categories: good and bad. Effective and ineffective. You say there is a third kind—the boss’s son or owner’s toady who accidentally gets things done, mostly on the back of an excellent crew. I say accidental leadership is bad leadership. So, no, there are just the two kinds.

While a foreman ideally is skilled and knowledgeable, that’s mostly irrelevant. A superb carpenter, brilliant construction management grad, or skilled equipment operator can be a flop as a crew supervisor. Working with things has little to do with working with people.

The defining characteristic of a good foreman is the ability to inspire. Don’t wince. I don’t mean that he (or she) gives uplifting sermonettes each morning while leaning against the tread of an excavator. I have never known a capable foreman who was a saint, and sainthood is not a prerequisite for effective leadership. Good character helps inspire workers to do good work, but a foreman with a problematic personal life can inspire if his head is on straight on the job.

Delivering inspiration is the key, and it can be done in many ways. When a foreman accepts personal blame for a rare job-site misjudgment, the dial shoots up on the inspiration meter. When a foreman works the same long day as his crew and is almost as dirty at the end of it, even chronic gripers are silenced. When an able foreman can lead through humor, especially self-deprecating humor—even when expressing disappointment in a worker’s efforts—crew productivity stays at a high level; the good feeling induced by laughter is better than a pep pill.

Field leadership is all about individual respect, fairness, and creating not only a sense of teamwork, but a genuine team, with the foreman as the quarterback.

We all know the characteristics of a bad foreman: unforgiving, sarcastic, bullying, and probably insecure. We should feel sorry for and help such people, but pity the crew led by such a person. It is bad for them.