In my last post I posed the question as to whether lean six sigma (LSS) leaders are born or made and argued that it’s a little of both. I also pointed to some key “ingredients” that are necessary to make a great leader. Those ingredients include:
- Raw material
- Life experiences
The raw materials are the start of what makes a great leader and to some degree are things we are born with that include inquisitiveness, initiative, and involvement; something I refer to as the “3 I’s of Leadership”. A natural leader has an insatiable inquiry to ask questions and always be looking for a better way. They are also more than just talkers, they take action and have initiative to change the status quo. Finally, they are also willing to get their hands dirty, so to speak, and not just tell others what to do, but to actually get involved in making progress.
In this post I want to focus on the remaining ingredients that complete a true LSS leader. These ingredients are the “spices”, that when added to the raw materials, bring out the “flavor” in a true leader.
When I was a recent college graduate I felt that experience was overrated. Why did I need experience when I knew through education and training what to do? What could experience teach me that I couldn’t learn by picking up a book or taking a class? As many of you can imagine, I had a lot of growing to do, and after taking my first job as a manufacturing engineer I quickly realized how little I really knew!
Sure, education and training are important, but there’s nothing like actually doing what you’ve been educated and trained to do that confirms just how little you actually know! I can still remember those early days thinking I knew everything to be a successful engineer only to quickly realize within a week of being on the job I had no clue how to take that learning and apply it to the real world.
Becoming a great leader takes time simply because time is needed to gain experience, and experience is needed to become a great leader. Taking this a step further I would argue that it’s not just experience, but the “right” experience that is needed.
Finding the right experience can be a challenge, but two things that have stood out for me in finding the right experience are connecting with a mentor early in your career, and knowing how to say “no” more than saying “yes”.
I was fortunate enough to connect with a great mentor who helped me create a pathway to becoming a better leader. When anyone starts out on a journey it’s always beneficial to connect with someone who has already been down the road you are traveling and can tell you about their experience and how you might learn from the mistakes and achievements they’ve had.
When you’re planning a trip to somewhere you’ve never been and someone tells you about their experience going there it creates not only excitement to experience what they tell you about, but it also helps guide your decisions as you take the journey yourself.
I can remember planning a trip to China and a friend of mine telling me about her experience in Beijing and where to go and not to go. Knowing what she told me about the city helped guide my path to experience much more than I could have by just reading the travel guides.
A second component to experience is learning what to say “yes” to, or perhaps more so what to say “no” to. Far too often we try to do everything possible to improve our abilities as a leader, and like Pareto suggested not everything is worth doing. The challenge is finding the 20% that leads to the 80%. A mentor can certainly help in this process, but also having the courage to say no more than saying yes can go a long way to staying focused on what matters.
Peter Drucker argued that great leaders have character, vision, and take responsibility, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with. Vision and responsibility are fairly straightforward in that you have to set the direction on where you want to go, and take responsibility (i.e. take initiative, get involved) in getting there, but what is character? How can one determine their character and whether or not it leads to becoming a great leader.
We all have characteristics of some sort. Simply looking at the definition of character as, “
Getting others to follow when they have a choice not to.
The heading of this section is one of my favorite definitions of a leader. We all have a choice to follow others, but this is especially true when leading a LSS project where, in most cases, there is no formal leader:follower reporting structure like there is with a supervisor and employee. I would argue being a leader of a LSS project is far more difficult than supervising people, because your team truly has the option to follow or not follow your lead.
What stands out in great leaders are their character, and some of the characteristics I would argue define a great leader include humility, restraint, love, compassion, and courage. Great leaders show humility in being able to admit it’s not all about them. Jim Collins made this point clear in his best selling book where he described leaders of “great” companies who shared a common characteristic of being humble and not needing to be the center of attention in their organizations.
Great leaders can also restrain themselves and manage their emotions without blowing up when things go wrong. They also have compassion and love for others, and put themselves in a role of serving their team’s needs.
Finally, they have courage. It takes guts to be a leader, and without courage others are not likely to follow your lead. This is one of the core values I have for myself that I describe as “humbly confident”. It may seem contradictory at first, but I truly believe it’s possible to have confidence and still be humble, especially if you are constantly looking for ways to serve and love on your team.
Why does character matter? Character matters because it leads to respect from others, which leads to trust, and trust ultimately leads to motivating others, which leads to results. You can’t skip any of these and hope to motivate others into generating results.
So where does this leave us in determining if LSS leaders are born or made? I would suggest it’s not so important one way or the other. What is important is that if you want to truly become an effective LSS leader you have to first look within yourself and ask do I have the 3 I’s in me right now? Am I inquisitive about my current work? Am I taking the initiative to make a difference? Am I getting involved and helping make a difference?
Do I have a mentor, and am I seeking the right experiences to become a better leader? Finally, if I asked those around me to describe my character would they say I’m focused on serving others, am humbly confident, compassionate, restrained even when the pressure is on, and have the courage to lead even when it’s not easy to do so?
Answering these questions about yourself is the beginning of becoming a LSS leader. What you do once you have the answers will determine whether or not you become a great LSS leader.