Leaders are the people who can envision a destination and inspire a group of others to join them on the journey to that goal.
Leadership can be both formal and informal. In formal leadership roles, the leader is designated by someone of higher authority to act in that capacity. The role may be a permanent position, or it may be a temporary assignment, such as a kaizen leader.
In an informal role, the person is simply applying his or her inherent leadership skills to a particular situation. This type of leadership can be particularly effective, as people are making their own choice to follow the person.
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A particularly difficult challenge of a Lean organization is that it has a tremendous requirement for leadership. Because of the focus on independent problem-solving and small group projects, plus the rapid pace of change, there is always a flurry of activity throughout an organization.
If formal, permanent leaders were the only ones in charge, they would simply not have the bandwidth to keep up with the needs of the organization. For that reason, people in a Lean organizations are frequently asked to guide their peers on improvement projects.
Lean organizations—the ones that really master it—create a problem for themselves. Success means growth, and growth means a need for more leaders. But that success is the result of the efforts of strong leaders throughout the company, leaders that took years to develop. When a company grows fast, it dilutes its leadership. It is important to keep the leadership funnel full of individuals who will be the future leaders of the company.
Fortunately, leadership is a skill that can be learned. The concept of a natural born leader is a myth. People may be born with particular physical traits, and even some hard-wired tendencies, but true leadership comes from practice.
Obviously, as a leader, one must have competence in their chosen field. They also must have strong leadership skills (rather than expound on that here, see our entry on leadership.)
But there are several basic skills that leaders must also have in order to be effective. You may note that these skills bridge the gap between management and leadership. While many people want to make a clear distinction between leaders and managers, the truth is that when a person is in charge, they need to be a little of both. So, if you want to be an effective leader do not forget to work on:
There are numerous other skills that can be extremely helpful to leaders, such as math, ‘reading’ people, problem solving, and a host of others. The point is that while leadership is focused on being able to set a course, it is the enabling talents that really makes a leader shine.
Becoming a leader takes practice. If you have aspirations to move up in the world, you have to plan how to gain leadership skills. This will frequently entail pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.
Some basic recommendations:
Senior leaders must identify and develop a steady flow of new talent to implement the vision of the future.
Kaizen events provide outstanding opportunity to do both of these things. Make a point of identifying improvement projects that match the talents of the people on your team. Your goal should be to give them an opportunity to be successful but to challenge them. This will both build their confidence and highlight the areas they need to work on to round out the skills they will need as they rise up in your organization.
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