Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King Jr., John C. Maxwell, S. Truett Cathy, and others are often referenced as examples of great leaders.
It’s because each of them is or were committed to a cause bigger than themselves, lead by example, and come from a place of serving others. If they would have chosen to lead from a place of power, their views and legacies may be very different than they are today.
Nelson Mandela claimed leaders should stand behind the flock.
“This image, of the shepherd behind his flock, is a collective activity [where] people at different times — depending on their strengths — come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go.”
This reminder is powerful that influential leaders are often not out in front of their people but utilize the people’s strengths to accomplish their goals.
During this election season, it feels like an excellent time to reflect on what authentic leadership looks like and how we can work toward being better leaders in our spheres of influence.
I believe as continuous improvement (CI) practitioners; we are placed in a leadership position. We are tasked to lead others through the problem-solving process and to ultimately achieve the goal of improved performance in a work area, process, or value stream. In many cases, we have no formal authority or power over the individuals and teams we are leading, so we especially need to exhibit leadership skills to move people toward a common objective.
The good news is, we can draw from behaviors and actions we already practice as CI practitioners to be better leaders. Here are a few of the behaviors and activities that have helped me grow as a leader and to lead from a place of serving others:
Focus on Providing Value
By definition, Lean’s overall purpose is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. At the core, this asks us to focus our priorities on our customers — those we serve. Starting with asking ourselves, “Who do I serve?” immediately puts us in a ‘serving others’ mindset. Like the previously mentioned notable leaders, we should challenge ourselves to focus on who we serve and how best we can serve them as leaders.
In 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell, law five is the Law of Addition – to add value by serving others. In Lean, we ask, “what does the customer value?” As a leader, we can ask ourselves questions like “what do my people need?” or “how can I help others succeed?”
By looking at the people we lead as our customers, this promotes a service mindset.
Develop People to Succeed
Just as we provide training, coaching, and practical experience in CI skills to newcomers, as leaders, we should take a similar approach to equip our people to succeed.
Development is more than training, but also includes:
- Assessing peoples’ strengths and areas for further development
- Aligning peoples’ work with their strengths and areas of interest
- Supplementing growth through training with coaching and practical application
As leaders, we often serve as coaches, formally or informally, to facilitate others’ performance, learning, and development. An effective coach uses open-ended inquiry to promote self-discovery versus directing.
“The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves, but how far we advance others.”
— John Maxwell
As a leader, it is easy to tell or direct others toward a specific task, objective, or goal, but this approach comes from a place of power, which may not be most effective for the situation. In a crisis or other fast-paced situation, taking a directive approach may be necessary to move forward. However, in other cases, it inhibits the engagement and growth of others.
Instead, ask open-ended questions to maximize another’s learning and potential. People learn and grow more through self-discovery versus being directed to the ‘correct’ options or answers. Open-ended questions start with who, what, when, where, why, and how to encourage others to work through issues, next steps, alternatives, etc. on their own.
Additionally, to help you understand what people need or how you can help them succeed, make time to ask them what is working and what’s not working. With many people continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, this is especially important to do more often. Something as simple as allowing for flexible work hours or purchasing a second monitor can boost productivity and make a big difference in someone’s ability to succeed. Asking for feedback is only the first step. As leaders, it is imperative to follow up on the feedback you receive and take action when feasible.
Walk Alongside People
As CI practitioners, we study how work is done to understand the current state, perform root cause analysis, and determine appropriate solutions to reduce waste and maximize value. Going to Gemba — the place where the work is done — is one of the best ways to connect to the people who do work and more deeply understand the work being done.
As leaders, we should adopt this practice by observing how people perform their work. Often, we are removed from the actual work in a process and make assumptions about how the process works (or doesn’t work). By experiencing how work is truly performed and what people experience first-hand, we get an accurate picture of whether people are set up to be successful or not. This understanding gives us a better idea of how to solve problems and make incremental improvements.
Demonstrating this ‘roll up your sleeves’ attitude goes a long way in engaging with and building trust with others.
Reflect and Play the Long Game
Being a true leader doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process that takes time. It’s crucial to reflect on your personal leadership approach and be honest about what you can work on improving. Begin with the humility to acknowledge shortcomings and be willing to continuously learn and grow in those areas.
Like continuous improvement, developing others as leaders is a journey, not a destination. I have experienced this first-hand in watching others’ mature their CI thinking and skills over several years.
There will always be an authority in leadership. While that remains true, leading from a service place doesn’t mean that you are taking the “lead” out of leadership. In my experience, I have more quickly gained trust and credibility with others faster by taking a service-focused approach to lead.
Create a culture of leaders around you by focusing on adding value, developing people, being engaged by asking questions and walking alongside your people, and continuously learning and growing.
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