When thinking about the desirable character traits of Lean leaders, the list can run to pages. Lean isn’t easy (if it were, everyone would be doing it) so taking on a leadership role in a Lean organisation isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve written previously about the potential for problems when a new leader comes in to a Lean organisation and there is no disputing the importance of good leadership in successful implementation of a Lean strategy.
That said, I believe that almost all the qualities one seeks in Lean leaders can be summed up in one word: humility. To be humble is to be conscious of one’s failings. Lean leaders need to be self-critical in the sense that they must always be striving for improvement – nay, perfection. That restlessness of never being quite satisfied, with themselves and with the performance of the business, is the key to continuous improvement and the search for ever-better ways of working.
The humility to listen to others and learn from them is vital. Whether taking on board customer complaints or going out into the business on a regular basis to learn from colleagues about how things could be improved, the ability to receive and act on feedback is essential.
‘Servant-leader’ is a well-used definition of Lean leaders. A willingness to put oneself in others’ shoes and to know that, wherever your place may be on the corporate ladder, ultimately your role is to serve the company, your customers and the wider world, is perhaps the ultimate expression of humility.
Of course, the flip side to humility is that the most humble of people frequently don’t realise how good they are. Potential Lean leaders can be hidden in plain sight within an organisation as they are often to be found in the ranks, coming in each day and doing the very best job they can in a quiet way.
They will usually be well-liked and respected by their peers but often invisible to those higher up the organisation. They may be unofficial mentors to colleagues, perhaps they’ve developed a new way of working to solve a problem or iron out an inefficiency, but they’d be the last person to talk about it. And here’s the rub.
In a traditional organisation, the leader is ‘the boss’. Bosses are bossy, managerial, domineering, controlling and authoritarian. Their mantra is, “Do as I say, not as I do”, “It’s my way or the highway”, and other such dreadful David Brent-isms. Bosses do not make good Lean leaders.
The best Lean leaders lead by inspiration not dictatorship. They are leaders because others want to follow them and they have the humility to realise that success is built on collaboration. So, look around you: where are the humble people in your organisation? Could they be your next Lean leaders? Whether you agree or disagree with my perspective, I’d welcome your views.