Some context (added August 2, 2020):
Prior to our work on post-industrial management science, which began in 2014, we were the Lean Systems Institute and worked on large-scale organizational design and redesign efforts in knowledge-intensive organizations. The original Lean methodology for Toyota was a powerful approach to build learning organizations. It was, however, born in a world still dominated by manufacturing and repetitive service work. Lean successfully achieved organizational performance improvement through better workflows and product flows, but it didn’t have as comprehensive tools for addressing other important aspects of organizations. They were there, but they weren’t really designed for organizations that primarily did creative knowledge work. Lean Software Development was an aspect of the Agile movement in the 2000s, but there was a lack of a comprehensive framework to address all of aspects of organizational design.
Oover a ten-year period from our founding in 2004 to 2014, we as part of our client work gradually reinvented Lean for knowledge work. This resulted in a very comprehensive organizational design framework and modeling language we called the Lean Systems Framework (LSF). The LSF added a large number of models for describing various aspects of organizations, including knowledge management, product architectures, organizational structure, and so on. This article addresses the work we did on better understanding leadership “styles” (not personality styles as much as the approach taken) and leadership credibility (here called “leadership capital”).
We have kept this article because even in a post-industrial context, leadership remains a crucial challenge. Enterprises struggle to renew themselves faster, after while also coping with an economically devastating pandemic. How do we get people on the same page and engage them to move toward a shared goal while the world keeps changing around us? The article below also includes a video if a presentation that Frode Odegard made in mid-2014 at an Agile software development conference.
What is Leadership?
As the administrative tasks of managers have become more automated, leadership has grown in popularity as a topic. It is often treated as something mysterious and ephemeral, more of an art than a science. Ever since the Bronze Age, humans have told tales, often tall tales, about great leaders and leaders who have failed. But stories are not enough. If we are to properly understand a thing, as Aristotle would tell us, we must seek to identify and understand its essence. We must learn its key characteristics. Only then may our knowledge advance beyond the anecdotal.
The essence of a thing, to the extent that we do understand it, can be captured in a definition. A definition should set it apart from and also make clear its essential relationships to other things. A proper definition must be based on prior observation and experience, it is not arbitrary.
Professor Edwin Locke, an industrial psychologist well-known for his work on goal-setting and motivation, defines Leadership as the process of inducing others to pursue a common goal or vision. This definition implies two essential components: (1) formulating a shared goal or vision, which of course must be kept up to date, and (2) persuading others to follow. Leadership, then, is a type of ongoing activity, but it is an activity with an overarching purpose – to cause others to act in the pursuit of a joint value or set of values. Leadership is also a relational concept – without followers, there cannot be a leader.
There are many ways to lead, and these are commonly referred to as “leadership styles”. Here we do not simply refer to personal style or personality type, but to a broader set of approaches and attributes which we will discuss below.
Let’s begin by reviewing some oft-mentoned leadership styles:
This style, often associated with the military but also common in industry, emphasizes a strict chain of command with hierarchies of goals and limited autonomy. Professional growth may or may not be part of the equation, depending on the goals of the organization. Military organizations often do better with professional growth than civilization organizations, since most of their time is spent practicing instead of fighting actual wars. It is also worth mentioning that autonomy varies quite a bit and in some situations can be substantial. Command-and-control is the original and default leadership style since the Neolithic revolution.
The basic premise for servant leadership is that the leader is there to serve his or her people. In formulating a vision, the leader seeks participation and approval from them and the main approach to pursuing the vision lies in removing obstacles and helping followers be successful.
The business literature and the press is full of stories of celebrity CEOs who can move followers through their own force of personality, intellect and credibility. Steve Jobs is a classic example. He was admired, respected and even at times feared by his people. Charismatic leaders may reframe or even distort facts in order to move people to action. In the case of Jobs this was referred to by many as a “reality distortion field”.
The Quiet Leader
There are plenty of examples of leaders who don’t have an outsized personality and who are still effective in meeting organizational goals and motivating their people. Some even make a point of not having their “ego” get in the way on the facts, instead preferring to remain in the background. This approach is known as “Quiet Leadership”.
When a significant external opportunity presents itself or is developed, some leaders are able to develop a vision which is a significant break from the past. Visionary leaders disrupt or even create whole industries, and they are able to rely on the power of the vision itself to persuade others to follow.
In this leadership style, there is an emphasis on involving followers both in vision formulation and in decision-making in general. The leader grants a fair amount of autonomy and seeks to reach decisions through consensus where possible.
Transformational leadership is employed by leaders who seek to create value by transforming the organization and quite often themselves and their own people in the process. The style places great emphasis on autonomy and continuous learning for everyone, though it is a means to an end – achieving the transformation.
When an organization is not changing much and where the focus of action is invariably short-term, leaders tend to focus on day-to-day tasks almost exclusively. A fast food restaurant would be a good example, but we also see this leadership style in organizations where sections are relatively isolated and change slowly.
This school of thought holds that leaders should not tied to a single style, but instead try to acquire a portfolio of leadership skills and then change styles as the situation changes.
The leadership styles described here are of course approximations. In practice leaders do behave differently under different circumstances, and many will exhibit a blend of two or more of these styles. The styles do denote dominant characteristics, however. You may recognize some or all of them from your own career.
Leadership Style Attributes
To better be able to compare and contrast leadership styles, we must identify their key distinguishing characteristics. The Lean Systems Framework includes a model of leadership styles with these ten attributes:
- Knowledge rights – how much information is shared with followers
- Decision rights – how much decision-making authority is delegated
- Evidence-driven – how much leaders are driven by reality-correspondence
- Integrity – the extent to which an integrated view of the world is emphasized
- Organizational change – whether goals are met by transforming the organization
- Individual growth – weight placed on helping individual followers develop
- Domain experience – expectation that the leader will know what to do and how
- Charisma – whether charisma plays an important part in persuading others
- Adaptability – the extent to which the leader is willing to revisit assumptions
- Normative appeal – whether leaders appeal to vision and values, goals/rewards or intimidation
Each of these attributes can be given a score, via self-assessment or via outside feedback. We can then illustrate the styles as follows:
Organizations that focus on systematic learning as a means to creating value we refer to as Learning Organizations. They don’t learn by accident, but utilize specific approaches such as Lean. Learning Organizations benefit from a leadership style that focuses on mobilizing employees for problem-solving. We call this Lean Leadership. It is essentially a blend of the Transformational and Participatory styles.
Lean Leaders focus on developing people as innovators and problem-solvers so that they in turn can work to transform the organization in pursuit of a long-term vision. Lean Leadership entails broad knowledge and decision-rights, although leaders are responsible for the final decisions being made.
The illustration below shows the contrast between Lean Leadership and Command-and-Control Leadership.
Although Lean Leadership does focus on helping subordinates become more effective, it is not Servant Leadership. The leader still is responsible for the overall direction and subordinates are helped (developed) so they can more easily help themselves. Also, while Lean Leadership does not reject charisma, the main emphasis is always on facts and problem-solving.
When your organization won’t allow you to practice Lean Leadership
Most leaders have bosses. If you are not the CEO, you may very well face obstacles and constraints that will prevent you from fully practicing Lean Leadership. Common challenges here include:
- Knowledge barriers – whether due to organizational structure, policy or both, sharing information may be difficult and you may yourself be in a position where you don’t fully know what’s going on either.
- Delegation constraints – if roles and responsibilities are predetermined, this will make it harder to grant decision rights as freely as you would like.
- Evidence blindness – you can instill a respect for the facts in your own people, but if your boss(es) won’t listen to facts alone, you have to get clever about how you tell the story to them in a way that tie facts to their own goals and agendas. Welcome to middle management!
- Organizational change – if you and your subordinates don’t have the authority to implement improvements, your only remedy is working “harder”. Transactional Leadership might be more appropriate.
- Short employee tenures – your subordinates leave faster than you can develop them.
- Trust – your subordinates have a deep mistrust of the top leaders in the company.
Sometimes Lean Leadership really is not appropriate because of the organization’s situation or lifecycle stage. In an early-stage startup, the organizational goals are short-term and what really matters is meeting them so one can get more funding and more customers and get a chance to learn more. An organization that is being sold or shut down is also not a good candidate for Lean Leadership.
Adopting a Leadership Style
First off, determine the kind of leadership appropriate for your context. Then review your own leadership style and see where you want to make changes. You can use the model presented here to capture current and future states and maintain a journal over time to see where you struggle.
When you face constraints imposed by your boss or the organization, the leadership style model can function as a way to capture agreements, disagreements and areas where you lack clarity. You will be able to have a more detailed discussion about the pros and cons of changing leadership styles.
Finally, one can also use this model to “standardize” a set of ideal behaviors for leaders in your organization. When the actual leadership behaviors deviate significantly from the ideal, this can be recognized and the model can be employed as a coaching tool.
For a compact discussion of important leadership traits, which is complimentary to leadership styles, I recommend Edwin Locke’s book “The Essence of Leadership: The Four Keys to Leading Successfully”. The relationships between traits (such as being energetic), leadership styles and leadership effectiveness have already been subject to some research. However, we would like to gather more data here using the more detailed leadership styles model in the Lean Systems Framework.
We have also included the video recording of a talk I gave at the LKNA conference in San Francisco in May 2014. It includes the material on leadership styles as well as a discussion of leadership capital, the amount of confidence leaders enjoy. We discuss how leadership capital can be decomposed into perceived character and perceived effectiveness, how these can be quantified, and how leadership capital is utilized, gained and lost.