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Why Do Good Leaders Fail? The Leadership Spectrum in Action

A truly great leader can flex his leadership style to meet organizational demands. These examples help you understand why.

This is the third of three articles that will explore a new way of thinking about leadership. The first article took a look at some of the differences between managing and leading. The second one explained the ‘Leadership Spectrum’ and this third article will give examples and highlights of other aspects of leadership needed to promote a successful improvement initiative. 

A truly great leader can “flex” from post to post on the Leadership Spectrum (see below) depending on the current need to help the organization achieve greatness. This is a rare ability that only a select few are able to master. In fact, if a company discovers leaders in their midst who can demonstrate success at each of the posts (and knows when it is appropriate to move to a different post), the CEO/owner/organization president would be wise to do everything they can to mentor, coach and promote these folks if they want to achieve greatness. However, what about the leaders who are successful at a specific post but find it difficult to shift their approach to other parts of the spectrum?

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to speak with several company executives about the people they have tasked with leading their improvement efforts. They shared with me that the Leadership Spectrum diagram helped them to better understand why some of the leaders in their organizations might be struggling. In each case, the employee being discussed was considered to be an exceptional leader when utilizing a specific style (but unable to flex), yet they were struggling to successfully change the culture so lean and Six Sigma could flourish. Some of the scenarios discussed include:

  1. A Post 4 leader hired into a Post 1 organization – A successful leader was hired from a company that had a team-based, improvement-focused culture for many years (Post 4). This person was brought on board to infuse the same culture in an organization that had struggled to make any significant change for the past decade. The organization had been led (somewhat successfully) by a dictator (Post 1) and the employees were comfortable doing what they were told to do. In fact, when the previous leader gave them a task, the employees took great pride in getting the job done as quickly as possible. However, change was slow and they were still using old, out-of-date technologies and obsolete, poorly defined processes that caused costs and quality issues to trend in the wrong direction. The new Post 4 leader immediately started setting up teams and asked the employees to take more responsibility for resolving quality and delivery issues. Since trust had not been established, the employees had no training in how to improve processes, and fear of failure hung heavy in the air, the resistance to change prevented any meaningful improvements from occurring. After 18 months of constant battles with the employees, the new leader decided to resign, a Post 1 dictator was hired, and the organization went back to the old way of doing things.
  2. A Post 2 leader in a Post 4 organization – An organization had achieved something few groups are able to attain… self-directed teams of employees, working together to constantly look for ways to improve (Post 4). They had all of the necessary training and data that allowed them to know on a minute-by-minute basis how they were servicing their internal and external customers. The leader of this organization got promoted out of the plant and was replaced by a person who, on paper, appeared to be a good fit. However, it became apparent fairly quickly that a mistake had been made. The new leader welcomed input from the employees but insisted on making all of the final decisions (Post 2). This led to frustration and a significant slowing of tasks as the new boss quickly became the approval bottleneck. It didn’t take long for employees to begin asking for transfers to other departments. Several of them mentioned in their exit interviews that they were proud of the accomplishments they had achieved in a self-directed team environment and that they could not stomach going back to the old ways of doing things.
  3. A manager (Post 0) posing as a leader (Posts 1 – 4) – A manager typically gets things done through fear and coercion. Also, a manager is usually satisfied with the status quo and is fairly risk adverse. In today’s environment, in which most organizations are trying to achieve greatness, change is required. So, for these reasons, I consider managers as not showing up on the Leadership Spectrum (Post 0). Over the years, there have been many examples of managers trying to get hired into leadership positions. There are several “tricks” managers use to make themselves look like competent leaders, both on résumés and in the interview process. One of the telltale signs of a manager is the use of the word “I” (I did this, I accomplished that, etc.), which indicates a focus on themselves versus working in a team environment. Another way to flesh out a manager posing as a leader is to ask them for specific examples where they worked with a group of employees to make change happen. If they are unable to quickly come up with several solid examples, then this should raise a concern. Finally, if they overuse lean and Six Sigma jargon and recite text book definitions without demonstrating a clear understanding of the theory (when, why and how), the person may be faking it and you will want to keep looking for a true leader.

So, what does it look (and sound) like when a leader flexes up and down the Leadership Spectrum? What follows is an example based on actual events:

January (Post 1 Leadership)

Bob Smith was a little nervous as he prepared to hold his first staff meeting in his new position as plant manager. The 650-employee plant made a variety of products, and their performance would be considered mediocre at best. Bob was promoted to this position by the company CEO after successfully leading several smaller operations to greatness, but none of them compared to this challenge. “The good news,” thought Bob, “is that I have inherited a solid staff. With a little direction and coaching, we might be able to turn this ship around.”

“Please have a seat and let’s get this meeting started,” Bob said as his staff filtered into the room. “We have a great deal to discuss so let’s get started. As you all know, for the past several months I have been getting to know the employees at all levels and on each of the three shifts. I have also been combing through reams of data and analyzing our key metrics. Two major concerns have surfaced. First, our workplace safety is abysmal. I am honestly surprised that anyone would want to work in a factory where someone is getting injured almost every day.”

The manufacturing engineering director, who also had safety responsibilities, almost spoke up but thought better of it when his new boss put up a slide that showed a steep decline in the safety metrics.

“We have got to turn this around and fast,” said Bob. “It is impossible to ask our employees to participate on teams and get their inputs on how to improve processes if they are in constant fear of being hurt. We have really let them down. So, I want each of you to gather a group of employees, at least five or six, and perform a safety audit for an area of the plant. I have asked the maintenance department to be ready to fix any issues you uncover.”

There was noticeable grumbling from the staff, especially from those who did not spend much time on the shop floor. “I am not sure how to do a safety audit,” said the director of finance. “I would hate to walk into an unsafe area and add to our poor safety stats.”

“Don’t worry,” said Bob. “I will assign to your group a couple of our best employees, who know the plant, in order to make sure you are safe and I have asked our safety engineer to provide training. It is important though, that you help with the audits just like everybody else in order to learn some of the tools and to show that we are all in this together.”

“How many audits will we need to do?” asked the director of procurement.

“We will each do one audit a day for the foreseeable future,” said Bob.

“What!” exclaimed the director of shipping. “I already have a full plate as we get ready for the big trade show next month. I don’t have time for this.”

“Let me make this clear, this is our top priority,” said their boss. “I will talk to the sales and marketing folks and let them know that they will need to pick up the ball on the trade show. That goes for all of the rest of you as well. If doing these audits causes you to miss any deadlines, let me know and I will explain things to those who are impacted.”

“You mentioned two areas of concern,” said the director of operations. “What was the other?”

“We will discuss that in a few months. Let’s focus on making this place safe for now.”

April (Post 2 Leadership)

The director of quality was nervous as she waited for her boss to start their weekly staff meeting. Earlier that week, she received the data on customer complaints and external failures, and it was not good news. “I wonder how Bob will respond to this awful data?” she thought as the meeting began.

“First, I want to take a minute to thank each of you for doing a great job with the safety audits,” Bob said to kick off the staff meeting. “The audit scores have shown dramatic improvement, and I have spoken to several of the employees and they have noticed improvements on several fronts -- floors are cleaner, guards are being used properly, as well as several ergonomic issues have been addressed.”

“So, can we stop doing the audits?” asked the director of finance.

Bob smiled broadly as he said, “I know this has taken a great deal of time out of your schedule, but I think you all have benefited as well from this activity. I understand that several of you have gotten to know the employees, who make our products, better than ever. In fact, I heard that our director of finance here has discovered that the mechanics in our fabrication area enjoy his passion for fly fishing and are planning an outing in a few weeks. The audits are working so we need to keep them going. However, I do think we can cut them back from daily to twice a week. Let’s move on to our next major problem. I have asked our director of quality to share data regarding our customer complaints.”

“Well, I don’t think this is going to be a pleasant discussion. The data show our customers are having significant problems with several of our product lines.” She put up a slide that showed a dramatic negative trend in complaints and was not prepared for her boss’s reaction.

“This is great news!” said Bob. When he saw her surprised look, he continued, “Look, the only way we will get any better is to acknowledge our problems and mistakes. This data get us one step closer to turning things around.” He then turned to his director of operations and asked, “Based on this data and what you know about the factory, where would you suggest we begin to right this ship?”

“Most of our complaints stem from poor finishes on our product,” said the director of operations. “This will never happen, but if we could shut down production for a week, I would suggest a complete refurbishment of our plating line. However, we have way too many orders on the schedule to do that anytime soon.”

“Hmm,” thought Bob out loud. “According to this data, we are rejecting 30% of the product coming out of the plating area. We then make 30% more to replace the rejects. No wonder we are behind our production schedule. It seems to me that we need to fix this problem as soon as possible. We may think we are doing right by our customers by shipping them product, but if they have to send some of it back due to finishing defects, we have not really met any of their needs. So, let’s plan on shutting down the plating line next month for an entire week for a complete refurbishment.” Bob could sense the uneasiness this decision caused.  “We can try to minimize our production disruptions but I will personally call each customer that might be impacted with a late order and explain our situation.”

July (Post 3 Leadership)

Bob was in a good mood. The safety numbers continued to improve, the plating line refurbishment was successful and they were starting to see improvement in both the quality and output numbers. He felt it was time to introduce the concept of employee teams to his staff.

“I want to thank each of you for helping to stabilize our business,” Bob said at the July staff meeting. “I hope you are passing along words of encouragement and thanks to each company employee. It is important to foster trust and inspiration as we ask folks to continue to help save this business. As you all know, we have started a series of training classes to help all employees learn the tools and methodologies of lean and Six Sigma. This will help develop a common language and understanding as we begin to set up improvement teams. Any suggestions on where we need to set up our first couple of teams?”

“I would like to sponsor an improvement team in the assembly area,” said one of the production leaders.

“Thank you for your willingness to being the first,” said Bob. “I would like to volunteer to be a member of this team.”

The production leader looked surprised. “Wait a minute. Do you think that is a good idea? I mean, I am afraid that the other members of the team will think that they will have no voice and will end up agreeing to do what you want done.”

“I know that may be a concern,” said Bob. “So, I will make it clear in the first meeting that whenever this team gets together, I am to be treated like any other member. It is important, though, that everyone understands my commitment to making sure this inaugural team has everything it needs to be successful.”

“Do you think the plating line would be a good place to set up a second team?” Bob asked the director of operations.

“They are extremely pumped now that the quality yields have gotten better. I think that would be an excellent choice and I will volunteer to make that happen.”

“The pieces are starting to fall into place,” thought Bob as the meeting concluded.

December (Back to Post 1 Leadership)

The staff was buzzing about the latest data. There were clear indications of improvement on all fronts, and they were looking forward to their next staff meeting to discuss the accomplishments of several teams that were now in place. However, the room quickly quieted down as Bob entered with a grim expression on his face.

“Everyone please have a seat. I know you all came here today to discuss the terrific progress we have seen from several of our teams, and I do want the momentum to continue. However, we will need to set aside patting ourselves on the back in order to discuss a new development. Our head of design engineering just shared with me a flaw in one of our products that causes catastrophic failure after only a few months of use. I have put together a list of assignments for each of you as we dig out of this crisis. This is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, and I expect we will all be working long hours for the rest of the year. I will be here with you every step of the way even if it means missing the holidays.”

Bob then explained all of the tasks he needed each of them to do in order to help the company survive. To his surprise, every one of the staff (and ultimately every employee) jumped at the chance to help. “Maybe this ship is starting to head in the right direction if only we can survive this latest iceberg,” thought Bob as he picked up the phone to let his family know that it would be a late night at work. 

Being a great leader requires many characteristics. First, a leader must have the wisdom and ability to flex along the Leadership Spectrum. Second, the leader must be able to craft an inspirational vision of the future that every employee can rally around. Third, the leader must be able to hire talented employees who share the same vision and values the leader is trying to instill into the organization. Once these employees are on board, the leader must be able to mentor and coach them in order for each worker to achieve their full potential. Fourth, a leader needs to provide data, support, and encouragement. And finally, a leader needs to know when to step aside and let the teams drive the improvements.

If someone in your organization possesses all of these traits, strategically promote them into significant roles of influence. The more true leaders, who are hired and promoted, the greater the odds that your teams will achieving greatness.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704) 658-0049 and [email protected] And find his profile on Linked In.

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