The 4 Types of Leaders in Distribution (And the One You Should Aspire to) - Modern Distribution Management

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The 4 Types of Leaders in Distribution (And the One You Should Aspire to)

Dirk Beveridge discusses how the distribution industry and its workforce have changed, and that industry leaders need to follow suit.

Due to an accelerating confluence of external, internal and people forces, people are speaking up (loudly) about how they want to work — and the types of leaders they want to work for.

The art and science of leadership — the very nature of it — is entering a new phase.

Drawing on my decades of consulting, and the past couple of summers spent walking through warehouses and hearing the stories of distributors, I’ve identified three traditional types, or phases, of leadership:

Controlling: A controlling leader gets things done through legislating and policing. They typically resort to fear as a motivator.

This management style is detrimental. Those with a controlling mindset are rapidly being left behind, employees jumping ship to healthier work cultures, or the companies are being acquired by others. History is full of  businesses failing because of this mentality.

Managing: Managing leaders focus on the day-to-day. This style was adopted by many distributors during the pandemic simply because of the volume of disruptions taking place on a routine basis. These leaders are focused on the status quo and maintaining processes; think of the “This is the way we’ve always done it — and it’s working” mentality.

Our research found that most organizations with this leadership style are still looking backward in their effort to manage for the future. This perspective is often limited to the short-term, rather than playing the long game — making sure your organization is here for the next generation, and the one after that.

The issue here is that these leaders lack the vision to understand and the ability to articulate the value their company brings to their customers, their employees and the industry at large.

In the first part of my research series, my team and I focused on the changing nature of leadership. We found that nearly half of distributors believe that managing is the norm in most distributor organizations.

Leading: This style looks to the future; leaders who are “leading” can articulate their vision and even have a defined strategy to achieve it. Out of the three more traditional types of leaders, this management style is the most progressive. They understand the impact of change on their business and are actively finding ways to move forward.

A New Kind of Leader

People no longer want to be managed. Priorities have changed; they have reevaluated what matters to them. The job might pay the bills, but if it’s not satisfying their other personal and professional goals, people are looking for more fulfilling work elsewhere.

I’m calling leaders to move beyond these three traditional styles and into a fourth that I’ve identified as the Noble Calling of leadership.

Pre-pandemic, leadership discussions with distributors were all about leading their organizations through vision, strategy and culture, or other similar factors. But some leaders are placing a renewed focus on their employees — as individuals.

Enter Noble Calling, the Fourth Style of Leadership:

The Noble Calling of leadership is all about making an impact — beyond the bottom line. Management is called by a higher purpose. Leaders are focused on the humanity of business and their effect on the lives of their employees.

This leadership style is still in its adoption infancy. In fact, my research found that only 6% of respondents believe businesses are leading with a higher calling in mind.

We found a 41 percentage-point difference between where leaders are now (Managing and Controlling), and where distributors said they need to be in the next five years (Noble Calling) if they want to succeed in the long run.

What Does it Take to Lead Nobly?

You have to infuse humanity into the equation.

You have to provide opportunities for team members to improve the lives and well-being of their families.

You have to create an environment of growth for employees.

One respondent said it this way: “Empowering your employees to be the best version of themselves and having them believing in themselves will create more leaders. We all have plenty of managers; we need leaders to excel. Putting time, money and coaching back into our people is how we will thrive.”

First Supply out of Madison, Wisconsin, is showing that caring for your employees is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do — for the employees and the business. Distribution works because of the capacity of every human being inside of it. First Supply is playing out the Noble Calling of leadership in real life.

For example, at First Supply, employees are far from disengaged. Josè Rivera, a branch manager, has been with First Supply for 11 years. When I talked to him, without hesitation, he told me he plans to be there for 11 more. “It’s not like you’re a number or just an employee. You’re like a family member with everybody at First Supply.”

First Supply supported his desire to explore a career in outside sales — and then continued to support him when he realized, after testing the waters for six months, that it wasn’t right for him. He decided to return to his branch manager job, where he could reconnect with his customers, including regulars who would come in from time to time to just chat.

Employees want to work for a company that has humanity, a company that understands people have goals and dreams. Ninety-three percent of distributors in our research said that the future of distribution includes more humanity.

Other distributors we visited are embracing this fourth style of leadership.

Robert Weed Corp., for example, is focusing on employees’ whole selves as part of a transformation they embarked on in the last year. One way the company does this is by providing leadership and life-coaching programs for all employees’ emotional, physical, mental, social and financial well-being.

L&R Supply immediately gave Adela Perez the opportunity to become a forklift operator after she nervously shared her dream to do so with leadership. Within 30 days, she was in their training program.

Manpower Group found that employees are prioritizing flexibility and skills development; more than half of workers in that survey said they are prepared to change companies to improve their well-being.

My research supported this finding. People want to be challenged, and they want the space and support to grow. They want opportunities for advancement in their roles and for the longevity of their career. They want the freedom to do the job they were hired to do, the trust from leadership to do the job well, and the sense of pride and responsibility that comes with a job well done.

Ultimately, people want to feel like they’re a person and not a number. They want a job that brings fulfillment, enjoyment and a sense of purpose.

As one survey respondent said, “The pandemic redefined how people view work…People work for benefits it provides them, not for the benefits it provides the company. People work because they want to be part of something that enables their life aspirations.”

The need to embrace this Noble Calling of leadership is do or die. As leaders, we must fight the desire to just hold on until the current challenges pass before changing the way we lead, or growth will be harder to come by.

The world has changed. Your business has changed. And your people have changed. The workplace is being redefined. How people want and need to be led is being redefined. And the expectations of you as a leader are being redefined.

And so, your moves as a leader are being watched and evaluated like never before.

What’s your next move? Read my new research report for more on how leadership is being redefined, and what you should do about it: Reimagining Leadership.

Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnleashWD, Executive Producer at We Supply America, President of the Beveridge Consulting Group and Champion for the noble calling of distribution for over 36 years. His one-of-a-kind perspective on the future of wholesale distribution has guided his mission to advance the growth, relevance and transformation of the industry, helping distributors thrive. Learn more about Dirk by visiting Or learn about his work speaking to audiences big and small for forward-thinking businesses and associations committed to creating new value in the market.

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