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The Art Of Material Handling Leadership

Leadership is a timely theme in each of our businesses, and in today’s turbulent times, leadership is more important than ever. Understanding leadership gives a baseline for us to continually improve our companies.

In material handling, several trends in the market are shaping our leadership as we continue into the 21st century. Some of these trends include globalization, profit compression, demographic shifts, product changes, information technology expansions and knowledge growth. Taking a closer look at each of these will shed some light on the future of our industry.

The material handling business is increasingly becoming borderless, with information, capital and innovation flow at the forefront. It is difficult for companies to master all the functions like quality, production and marketing. The best companies are those that can collaborate with others to harness all the different aspects of leadership. Small companies will flourish by taking advantage of all new tools for collaboration.

Profit Compression
Increased margin pressure has been in place for some time, and it is only going to worsen as competition becomes tougher. Reduced margins continue to force leaders in the material handling industry to differentiate the value proposition offered by their companies.

Demographic Shifts
The United States population is aging. As Baby Boomers approach retirement age, there will be a severe shortage of qualified people in our businesses. This places extreme importance on succession planning. Unfortunately, this topic remains grossly neglected by material handling distributors. The industry must also recruit technicians to sustain growth and build a team that is capable of working as a team. Also, learning to communicate ably in Spanish is a must as the demographic makeup of the United States changes.

Product Changes
Warehouses will continue to grow, as will the market for material handling products. Despite what you may hear, the material handling industry is not mature. The competition is rapidly changing as high technologies increase productivity and make products cleaner and safer. Service is becoming more important than products.


Leaders of material handling companies in the 21st century share many traits. Here are some of them:

  • They are risk takers.
  • They have a clear vision and company purpose.
  • They have hands-on knowledge of their companies.
  • They build teams that can reach seemingly unattainable targets.
  • Honesty and integrity are paramount.
  • They know how to establish and leverage long-term partnerships. To succeed, the future leaders of the material handling industry must understand and capitalize on these trends.

Suggested Reading on Leadership

  • Leading at a Higher Level by Ken Blanchard
  • The Management of Innovation by Tom Burns and George Stalker
  • Built to Last and Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree
  • The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker
  • General and Industrial Management by Henri Fayol
  • The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman
  • Where Have All the Leaders Gone by Lee Iacocca
  • The Science of Muddling Through by Charles Lindblom
  • The Discourses and The Prince by Niccolo Macchiavelli
  • The Borderless World by Kenichi Ohmae
  • Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell by Harari Oren
  • In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman
  • Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts
  • Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein
  • Leadership in Administration by Phillip Selznick
  • The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Dr. Shankar Basu Meet the Author
Dr. Shankar Basu is president and CEO of Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc. and a director of Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing, the Columbus, IN, lift truck manufacturing plant.

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