What the Invention of the Pipe Wrench Teaches Us About Leadership

The invention of a tool plumbers are well familiar with contains valuable leadership lessons.

Daniel C. Stillson was a mechanic at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Mass., when he fashioned a new kind of pipe wrench out of wood. His prototype improved upon previous iterations of the wrench, which tended to slip on circular metal pipes and fasteners. Stillson’s invention solved that problem with adjustable jaws featuring angled teeth facing opposite directions. No matter which way you turned it, the tool gripped really well, so well that a steel version of the device tore through a 1 ¼ pipe!

Stillson was awarded a patent for his adjustable wrench in 1869, making plumbers’ jobs a heck of a lot easier. But none of this would have been possible if not for his employers, who knew a good thing when they saw one.

Leadership Allows Employees to Innovate

We can assume the Walworth Company had an open-door policy. Stillson wasn’t a CEO. He might not even have been middle management. He was a mechanic, but his rank or position didn’t matter to his higher-ups. When Stillson presented his custom pipe gripper, they saw the potential and let Stillson use company resources to turn his wooden implement into a heavyweight steel tool.

How open to ideas is your company? If only upper management is allowed to develop new processes or test different ways of doing things, then you’re missing out. A leader should foster an atmosphere that invites everyone within the company to propose solutions. Because you never know where the next great idea will come from!

Leadership is Thinking Outside the Box

The Walworth Company produced pipe fittings. Stillson’s management could have told him they weren’t in the business of making tools. But they saw the big picture. A device that would make the things they produce easier to work with? Hey, it’s worth a shot!

Are you too narrowly focused on your business’s core services that you’re missing tremendous opportunities? Are you willing to try something new? Test a theory? Leadership allows people to explore if there is minimal risk. In the case of the Walworth Company, they didn’t have a substantial investment in the tool. They simply let Stillson use some materials and, presumably, company time to prove the pipe wrench’s worth. If it didn’t work, no big loss.

Are you as open-minded?

Leadership Lets Employees Benefit From Their Contributions

The Walworth Company could have bought the patent from Stillson. Instead, they let Stillson keep the wrench and license it to the company, allowing the inventor to reap long-term profits from his design. It was a good deal for both parties.

Stillson’s name would become synonymous with the pipe wrench. Even today, you’ll hear some plumbers refer to the tool as a “Stillson.” Had his employers bought his patent and nudged him out, the pipe wrench might have a different name: The Walworth.

How does your company reward innovation? Are you quick to give credit where it’s due, or does management get all the glory?

Final thought: Your home services business doesn’t have to do anything as game-changing as inventing a new tool to reach new heights. Just something as simple as trying a new way to solicit online reviews, for example, or training employees could nudge your company in a positive direction. By being open to ideas (no matter who they come from), willing to try new things, and fostering innovation, you could be surprised where your business will go next.

Does Your Home Services Business Need a Leadership Tune-Up?

Dan Dowdy is a John Maxwell certified executive coach and founder of Built For The Trades. He transitioned from a technician to the owner of S&D Plumbing, which he transformed into a multi-million dollar company. He’s committed to strengthening the trades industry through effective, customized leadership training. For more information, call Dan at (800) 789-4486 or contact him here.