[December 26, 2014] Kick the tires – idiom – meaning “to inspect something to ensure it meets expected standards or has favored characteristics, typically before committing to purchasing or otherwise selecting it.” It no longer means to literally inspect a vehicle’s tires for defects. Effective leaders kick the tires to ensure their organization remains in good working order.
In early 2003, a young U.S. Army officer was ordered to take command of an armor company on short notice. The unit was loading their equipment on railroad cars to ship them out to the U.S. National Training Center in California. For the next month, the officer was getting to know his unit and later said he was very fortunate to have had the chance to command it in training. In effect, he was going to “kick the tires” of the unit and gain important knowledge; knowledge that he could command the unit and the unit could meet the requirements of combat.
Whatever we call it, the best leaders are the ones with a hand’s on approach. They know the benefits of pushing limits, stressing procedures, and testing the ability of teams to perform to standard. This is a purposeful decision; otherwise there is no expedient way of knowing their capabilities and capacities. It allows the leader to see into the organization much faster than otherwise would happen and convince oneself that it can achieve its mission.
On March 19, 2003 the armor company commander was in the lead tank in a coalition attack on Saddam Hussein’s military with the mission to outflank the enemy and force the surrender of the Iraqi Army. The officer later won the Silver Star for bravery while in contact with the enemy; parts of an Iraqi armor brigade that outnumbered his unit by about 10 to 1. His men performed admirably, far beyond his expectations and to everyone’s delight.
Fortunately, he had the opportunity to see the unit in action earlier – training action at the NTC in California – and to gain something that cannot be achieved by inspecting or walking around and talking to unit members. Nor can it be gained from studying past performance; something counter intuitive. The fastest and most effective way is to actually run the organization. This can be done in either a training environment or underway in accomplishing its mission.
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