Leadership for Lean – Humility

In  a Q&A in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Professor William George, author of 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, talks about seven leadership lessons for weathering crisis.  It’s a good read.  One of the lessons is, “Face reality, starting with yourself.”

Lean thinkers will recognize this as hansei or self-reflection.  Professor George argues that leaders have to be humble enough to admit weaknesses and flaws that they see. Too often lack of introspection and an abundance of hubris (defined by classicist J. Rufus Fears as “the outrageous arrogance that inflicts suffering upon the innocent”) keep people from effectively leading people and organizations.  The willingness to look critically at yourself and the humility deal with that reality is something that contributes to  effective lean leaders.

Professor George says this about the paradox between our cultural expectation of a leader and what is required of a leader(from the Q&A):

One of the great myths of leadership in recent years is that leaders have to appear strong and invulnerable to mistakes and pressures. All of us without exception make mistakes and will capitulate under enough pressure. The key is being open with others, taking them into your confidence, admitting your mistakes, and looking to them for advice and support. Rarely does anyone turn down a leader who genuinely asks for help.

Mr. George continues in the same Q&A talking about how ‘authentic leaders’ can begin resolving the paradox:

Authentic leaders find ways to resolve this struggle. Expressing humility is a great skill because it not only brings leaders closer to their management teams and employees, but also encourages similar candidness and humility in others. By taking the first step in revealing their vulnerabilities, leaders encourage an atmosphere where concerns and doubts are voiced…. It’s difficult to do, but expressing vulnerabilities appropriately will make leaders more effective.

This willingness to increase self-knowledge and then be humble before people and problems is part of what Deming intended in the seventh of his fourteen points, “adopt and institute leadership.”  By sharing your vulnerabilities with and seeking counsel from those around you (even those who report to you or those who rely on your technical leadership) breeds an atmosphere of trust which goes to the essence of Deming’s eight point, “drive out fear and build trust.”

This willingness to reflect honestly on the current situation and the humility to accept responsibility allows leaders to see the situation with clarity.  Prof. George from the Q&A:

Because their jobs compel them to demand a great deal from their employees, their companies, and their products, most demand the same from themselves. In so doing, they are at risk of letting their egos take over and letting their protective shells harden. When things go wrong—which they inevitably do—they assume the fault lies elsewhere. Yet in most cases the leaders bear a high degree of responsibility for the problems, often as a result of the direct or indirect pressures they put on their people.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s while losing market share at alarming rates American auto executives claimed that the Japanese makers paid too little, made too few models, the American worker is lazy.  They lacked the humility to acknowledge that their management practices were behind their decline.  The Japanese auto work made 106% what his American counterpart made, that the Japanese automaker made on average 15% more models, and their own management practices kept the American auto worker busy doing wasteful things.  They were doomed by their arrogance to fail.

Toyota President, Akio Toyoda, recently apologized for his company’s poor financial performance and for the loss of lives due to safety problems related to a recent recall.  He acknowledged that Toyota is at stage four (grasping for salvation) of the five stages of declined that Jim Collins outlined in his book, How the Mighty Fall (really good article and podcast from BusinessWeek here.)

Taking time to reflect, and being humble enough to ask for help, acknowledge responsibility, and communicating your vulnerabilities helps acheive clarity and keeps your model of the situation and yourself current. We all have some reasons to be humble.  We just need to remind ourselves of them.

Anybody have ‘bad boss’ stories that they want to tell (or any ‘good humble and introspective boss’ stories before I am accused of being Mr. Negative.)  This blog accepts anonymous comments so your boss won’t find it on a Google search.

Bruce

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4 Responses

  1. to keep updated and current, one has to study and attend workshops to have career futures…

    people have fears when it comes to failures, ask for assistance when they are successful most of their life.

  2. […] Leadership for Lean – Humility – a post reviewing an interview with Harvard Business School’s and former Medtronic CEO Bill George about the need for humility and reflection by business leaders during crisis and in a lean enterprise. […]

  3. […] as a Leadership Trait Leadership for Lean – Humility Top Level Leadership: The Triumph of Humility Over Arrogance Stumble it! « Managers, Do […]

  4. One issue is that “Lean Leaders” typically don’t hold the power or influence in an organization. Big organization have far too many department silos each with there own self interest and understanding of lean.

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