A maintainer or a leader - Learning from Toyota (2)

15,000 books in print on leadership, according to Harvard Division of Continued Education. Almost 3 billion results on Google for the search of the keyword "leadership." Countless courses worldwide and thousands of articles of all genres produced and published annually on the subject. How much of those volumes are original, and how much are repetitive, no one knows for sure. "Leadership" is an industry on its own. It has its "theories," "theorists," the body of knowledge, jobs, and pockets of revenues.

But why, despite all those materials, leadership is still a paradoxical term?

Some say leaders are born, and some say leadership is a developed skill. Some say it is an art, but some say it is a hybrid of science and art. Some say leaders lead from the back, while some say leaders lead from the front. Some state leaders delegate and manage teams without necessarily knowing the know-how, while others say a leader is he who gets his hands dirty with his team. And the list of the dichotomic scientifically unsubstantiated assertions goes on and on.

Discussions on leadership are slippery because:

1) No, as far as I am aware, leadership discussion considers the national culture's idiosyncrasies. Teamwork, for instance, is a tenet of work in one culture but not necessarily the case in another.

2) There is a promotion of stereotyping and a lack of attention paid to the differences in people's character and styles in the leadership arena, including employees' appraisal systems. For instance, the voluminous materials on leadership revolve around a mostly extrovert person. Once you read how much they empathize with the "essentialism" of teamwork, out-going, working with people, etc., some materials on leadership would conclude that highly skilled and competent introverts do not stand a chance of being promoted to the top. (For more on this, Susan Cane wrote a fantastic book on the injustice against introverts in her illuminating book "Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking")

3) The connotation of "leadership" deceives some into thinking that there is a positive correlation between titles and leadership. It is not uncommon for managers to judge, label, and appraise employees' leadership in some work settings. In contrast, the managers themselves are arguably not leaders in the good sense of the word. Not every Title is a leader, and there are many leaders on the battlefield with no title (for more on this, Robin Sharma's book, "The leader with no title" highlights these points in more detail.

4) Most of the definitions of "leadership" are generic and nearly impossible to measure. Abroad design of a concept or definition either stems from a superficial understanding of the idea or serves a purpose that only those who designed it hold its interpretation and measurement formula.

So, what is leadership, after all?

A leader is a person who makes things better and makes people better, but not necessarily makes them feel better. When you train yourself, for instance, to garner a skill, you might not like the process; you might despise the feeling of pain and sacrifice, but eventually, a betterment in you will yield. So, you discard or cope with that feeling. A leader is a person who leaves things better than when he first touched and handled them. A person tasked to head a shop, for example, left it after some time with the same or slightly improved malpractices and shortcoming is not a leader. He is a maintainer of the status quo.

To make things better, you have to have a repository of experience, knowledge, wisdom, courage, foresight, and a tested skillset.

One of the largest companies in the cars industry – Nissan – transformed from a loss to profitability in less than three years under the leadership of a person who worked from 7 am until 11 pm, from the shop floor ( not from the comfort of an office or meeting room). You cannot uplift a mammoth from the mud of loss, chaotic governance structure to the high ranking of profitability and success and, above all, maintain this success for more than a decade if you have a convoluted, copy-pasted, or egotistical concept of leadership. Carlos Ghosn is a manifestation of what I call "betterment leadership," real, sustainable, and intrinsic betterment. His leadership skills and achievement that he harnessed make you ignore what Title he held, CEO or COO or a Chairman of Nissan. The following books would give a glimpse of the leadership skills of Carlos Ghosn. "Shift, inside Nissan historical revival." "The Ghosn factor." "The art of business revitalization: management wisdom from Jack Welch, Carlos Ghosn, and Bill Gates." "Turnaround, how Carlos Ghosn rescued Nissan."

The above accounts indicate that Carlos Ghosn was not a leader who carried himself at Nissan as a person who manages a multi-billion-dollar business from a C-suite, hardly seen by the employees. He attracted a nickname of "7-11", after a supermarket chain "711", as a reference to his working hours from 7 am until 11 pm, with a true open-door policy and being always seen at the shop's floor with the workers, listening to them, learning, and directing them, and above all, understanding how Nissan works from them.

Toyota's sense of leadership is not far from what Carlos Ghosn embodied. The tenets of Toyota's leadership are:

  • Get your hand dirty: Toyota's Way is that the leadership position the company gave you does not mean that you stay in your office waiting for things to come to you in the form of reports or dashboards. A leader should get his hand dirty; he knows how things work; even if he has employees doing the work for him/ her, he still is expected to see the craft and understand the nitty-gritty details of the processes in his area. Only by this approach, he/ she would meet the company's overall principle in the four Ps, continuous improvement.

  • Consistency: Toyota considers the consistency in implementing policies and procedures, carrying out continuous improvement programs, and dealing with and treating its employees a fundamental value. No exceptions of policies or deviations from the values or favoritism are tolerated on any basis, even for top performers.

  • The personification of the values, principles, and leading by example. Leaders at Toyota are the live embodiment of the philosophy of the firm. They believe in it, religiously apply it, and teach it. During World War II, Japan's economy was significantly damaged, and the country suffered from hyperinflation. Toyota went through significant financial difficulties. Toyota had a principle that no employee should be laid off on the ground of the financial challenge. But the CEO had no choice but to ask some employees to take "voluntary retirement." Disgruntled employees took to the street expressing their anger that their firm reneged on its principle. The CEO left the company on "early retirement" and never returned even when the situation quelled. The angry employees understood the CEO's massage – he was leading by example.

  • Leaders of Toyota are readers and learners. Suppose there are players in the market or competition who have a production system. In that case, Toyota's leaders do not hesitate to study and learn that system in its entirety thoroughly. Toyota does not examine and explore this system to "benchmark" for dashboards reporting, but to understand how Toyota can build on that system and improve if found practical. Ford, post the War, followed the Mass Production System. Toyota's top leaders spent weeks at Ford Shops in the United States, learning this production model. When they returned to Japan, by trial and error building on what they have seen and known, they come up a drastically different production system, the Just-in-Time (JIT). At Toyota, leaders are always on the look for the learning experience and improvement ideas. From their shopping at a supermarket during their visit to Ford in the US the Toyota's leaders learned the benefit of the "Pull System"- the techniques of reducing waste in the production system. (For more on these systems and Toyota’s approach, James Womack wrote an amazing book “The Machine that Changed the World”)