Seven Essential Qualities of a Lean Leader

Profits are on the minds, tongues and priority lists of a lot of people lately. Companies are aggressively managing costs these days. As a result I am sad to see even some avowed lean leaders turning away from the principles and qualities that make them not merely exceptional leaders but lean ones. Profits are the result: either of luck, a heroic one-time effort or a scalable, sustainable and superior process. Lean leaders know their job is to help their organizations build the latter and minimize the former. Perhaps it’s time to review some of the essential qualities of a lean leader that result in profits.

P is for Perspective. Just as in art or geometry, in leadership perspective we need length and width and depth. The lean leader should hold a long-term perspective and guide their organization to make decisions that are in their best interests over the long haul. This first hurdle is often the highest for companies driven by quarterly earnings. Luckily having width of perspective, the system view rather than a local view, tends to require and reinforce long-term thinking. It is nearly impossible to bring lasting change across a supply chain or the extended enterprise without taking a long-term view. The depth of perspective requires the leader to be curious enough to go see, listen, connect with people and learn about the work in detail. While a leader may not gain depth across the entire breadth of the business in a short time, even making a visible effort sets an example for everyone they lead. A lean leader sees beyond their own horizon, is aware of the larger impact of our actions, and thinks in terms of total costs.

R is for Responsibility. In a society where we award leaders with authority, rights, and privilege more than responsibility, this is another difficult hurdle. Many leaders have exhibited a high degree of personal responsibility to gain their position. Few leaders and their organizations succeed without a high degree of customer awareness and responsibility. Yet the further an organization moves from interacting directly with customers, the weaker the sense of responsibility, and this risk is most evident in government bureaucracy, internal customer relationships, and the recent fiasco of financial service organizations. Therefore lean leaders need the quality of strong responsibility for the third type, social responsibility, in order to earning lasting results and respect.

O is for Openness.
Leaders must be open to change. Trading on the market called change never closes so we need to always be prepared to do business there. Most practically this means being open to new ideas, even those that one doesn’t support, like or claim ownership to. Openness may be too soft of a word, as the leader needs to constantly challenge ideas and assumptions, particularly their own. We all seek comfort, but comfort needs to be balanced with challenge. Taiichi Ohno said that even sages are wrong half of the time. Most leaders are no sages, and need to be open to being wrong so they can mend their ways.

With proper perspective, responsibility openness should come a sense of urgency.

F is for Flexibility.
. A lean leader must be a skilled two-way communicator, able to quickly adjust to differences in styles. Too often the audience is forced to adapt to the style of the leader, because of fear or the desire to please the leader. At best communication effectiveness is reduced to the weakest link in the chain. At best the communication style to accommodate the leader is only as effective as that leader’s style. Flexibility for a lean leader is the ability to accommodate differences in style, communication, and circumstance without reverting to type and defining the problem as it fits their favored personal solution.

I is for Inertia.

To most people the term “inertia” in daily use means “a tendency to remain inactive.” While we might wish such inertia upon inflexible leaders with narrow perspectives, a low sense of responsibility and closed minds, that is not the lean leader’s definition of inertia. Technically, inertia is the tendency of a body to maintain its state, speed and direction whether in rest or in motion, unless acted upon by an external force. The essential quality of a lean leader is steadiness, confidence, persistence, constancy of purpose, sticking to the principles and process, unless a sufficient external learning influences them to change their ways. Inertia is widely misunderstood. Leaders should have more of it.

T is for Teamwork.
An effective lean leader must be willing to identify, influence and be influenced by the needs to of their team. A lean leader effectively links one’s own goals with the goals of the group, removes barriers to enable teamwork, and identifies strongly with the team but does not crowd it. Much has been written on this topic. It’s all about the people, since that is what leaders lead.
A combination of flexibility, a strong sense of purpose and the ability to work through people will enable the leader’s vision.

S is for Self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge is an important category of learning, too often shunted off as pop psychology, executive coaching or a 12-step program. But leadership effectiveness is slowly evolving from arts and crafts towards a science. Before a leader can take control of the organization and effectively lead the team, she needs to get control of herself.

True self-knowledge should lead to humility. The trappings of privilege, titles or and apparent power moniker such as “sensei” can fool one into pride, arrogance or the belief that one is smarter, more experienced or more qualified than others one is leading or teaching. The ability to reflect and do hansei, constantly learn, and to give and accept challenges is the mark of a true lean leader.

A person who possesses and is guided by these seven essential qualities will guide their people towards profits.

8 Comments

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    October 12, 2009 - 2:32 pm

    Great post. I like to purposefully misspell responsibility as response-ability. We have the ability to choose our response. We can ask 5 why’s or we can ask 5 who’s. We can complain or take action. We can blame others or take the hit. We are not fully programmed animals, we can choose our response to the things that happen around us. How will you choose? -jamie flinchbaugh

  2. Liz Guthridge, The LEAN Communicator

    October 12, 2009 - 3:36 pm

    Jon, great essential qualities for lean leaders. Great to read that you specifically called out 2-way communications, not just communications. Leaders need to listen as well as talk. And as someone told me long ago, blessed are the flexible because they never get bent out of shape.

  3. Tim McMahon

    October 13, 2009 - 5:07 am

    Jon- great post. I like the use of the acrynom. In sticking with your theme there is one I would add, Passion. That is a passion for lean. Without this there will be no energy to fuel the change engine. Enthusiasm; intensity about a subject; willingness to engage others on their terms with respect to the threats and possibilities; deep knowledge about the subject; examples from one’s own experience are all marks of passion. These attributes can be studied, learned, and acquired over time. They grow from believing there is a better way of doing things. Lean leaders must bring this quality to ensure sucessful, sustainable change in their organization. Tim McMahon

  4. Marco

    October 13, 2009 - 8:59 am

    Yes, I am!

  5. Tom Leatherby

    October 13, 2009 - 10:45 am

    Great article and comments. My personal reminder on the same topic is, “Are you the cause or the affect of what is happening in the organization?”

  6. Rick Foreman

    October 13, 2009 - 1:48 pm

    Jon; I could not agree more with your analysis. The “constancy of purpose” is one that really sticks out to me. Why do we do what we do? Real leaders lead, while engaging and influencing others towards the benefit of the culture change and with great humility. Those who are effectively leading lean appear to have moved beyond the boundaries of a “what about me” society. Great post and reminder on leadership.

  7. Jon Miller

    October 13, 2009 - 3:32 pm

    Thanks for all of your comments. I thought the “profits” acronym might have been a bit cheesy. I’m glad you liked it.

  8. Dan Stoelb

    June 11, 2011 - 8:00 am

    Jon
    Great summary article of why leadership is important in any change initiative and why without leadership, the initiative is more subject to failure than success.
    The “Being of Leadership” is still not being practiced by the majority of those in leadership roles today, while the knowledge of leadership is understood. Knowledge by itself will not transform or lead to any thing unless it is properly directed and focused by the prism of effective leadership