My views on leadership – Dan Sanders

single-meta-cal June 30, 2017

Name: Lewis Sanders, but I go by Dan.

Age: 56

Title: Director of Traffic Engineering 

Family: Family extends to all of my close friends and loved ones – even those who aren’t “blood kin.” Two godsons, ages 6 and 9.

Education: Master of Science in Civil Engineering/Transportation from Georgia Tech; Bachelor of Science in Engineering from UCLA.

Background: Served summer internship in 1994, became Traffic Engineer in Engineering in 1997. After working in Alpharetta, Ga., and Yuma, Ariz., returned to Huntsville in 2014 as Deputy Director.

What You Didn’t Know:  Was a working musician throughout the 1980s, and rocked a mullet that rivaled Bono’s.

Sanders On Leadership:   Leadership is as Leadership does. There is quite a bit of talk about what leadership is, but in the end, it’s all about what you do and how you do it – the way you treat your peers and your employees. I still think of myself as an engineer, first and foremost, one who has managed to come up through the ranks with others who now happen to report to me.

I began supervising others in the summer of 1999 when then-City Engineer Tom Cunningham – to whom I reported – assigned me to head up the Traffic Operations Group.  This group had just been transferred over to Engineering from Public Works – which at the time was under Butch Stokes.  The next logical step was to have me supervise 24 hard-knocked construction and maintenance employees.  Makes sense…right?

Well, as you might imagine, it was a trial by fire.  There were so many rough patches!  Between my inexperience as a supervisor, and a perception by many of my employees that I had no idea what they did on a day-to-day basis, coupled with the fact that I had relocated to a different facility, away from the other engineering and traffic engineering staff, which made communication and project coordination much more difficult…I was in knots!

Over time, though, things began to take shape, and I was slowly able to wrap my hands around this new position.  Between daily chats with a good friend who offered invaluable advice on management techniques – such as holding daily meetings with crew leaders, prioritizing projects, requiring weekly status reports, documenting personnel issues, and so on – and placing myself on Emergency Call-out Rotation, which no previous traffic supervisor had done before, I gradually developed a rapport with the Group, and began to feel more at ease in management.

In 1994, on my first Tour of Duty with the City of Huntsville, Tom Cunningham agreed to let me shadow the Traffic Engineering staff. I learned plenty, but it wasn’t exactly what I had planned.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Dennis Thompson was and is a natural leader. I would see evidence of this in the Traffic Engineering Division all of the time, by the way that other staff relied on his judgment, experience and his ability to make decisions.

He led in his own hilarious style and unassuming demeanor, in order to get the job done. I’m hard-pressed to come up with soundbite-sized bullet points that would neatly describe how Dennis has led over the years, but I’ll try.  Here are a few:

One: “Understand the Problem.” When I was on a rotation with other Traffic Engineers to handle traffic complaints, I would go to Dennis after talking with the resident and thinking about the complaint for a while.  He’d ask “Have you looked at the site?”

I learned to be a much better problem-solver when I learned to better understand the problem — and this applies to many things.

Two: “Style is Everything.” The secret to Dennis’ success has been his style of delivery.  He comes across as authoritative without being pushy, he discusses and helps to resolve serious subjects with an infectious dose of comedy, and most important, he has this talent for asking strategically-placed questions that lead the other person to question their assumptions.  It’s so much more effective than arguing with the person.

Three: “Leadership Ain’t Just Top Down.”  Although he didn’t direct our division, Dennis has been a leader in every sense of the word. I will say, though, that the term “leader” implies that there are “followers.” I’ve often said that I’d follow Dennis anywhere.  I suppose that – by coming back for a fourth Tour of Duty, and having the honor of working with him once again – that I have.

‘My views on leadership’ is a regular CityBlog series highlighting City of Huntsville Department Heads and their leadership style.