Lean Leadership expert Dr. Bob Emiliani provides the groundwork for those seeking to shape an image of leadership that aligns with the needs and demands of the digital age.

Speed Leadership for the Digital Age

In the lead up to the 5th annual OPEX Week Europe summit, the official event blog will become home to some of the industry's most informed and influential voices. The first of our special contributors is consultant, author and Lean Leadership trainer Dr. Bob Emiliani who comes from a background of 25 years in Lean Leadership research. Below, Dr. Emiliani demonstrates why and how leadership should be transformed to meet the needs of the rapidly evolving digital age. 

Leadership in the Analogue Age

For more than 100 years, the principal approach to improving leadership has been to focus on leaders’ behaviours. The thinking is that if leaders change and improve their behaviours, then they will become more effective leaders. There is a mountain of good research on this topic, but the resulting antidotes have proven to be ineffective. Despite the large sums of money spent on leadership training and development each year, leadership behaviours, overall, have remained much the same. In addition, there is much confusion about leadership. Is it a good thing when:

  • The word “leadership” means different things to different people?
  • There are hundreds of different definitions of leadership?
  • Leadership is defined from the leader’s perspective and ignores the follower’s perspective?
  • Leaders are over-committed and struggle to do the job they want and need to do?
  • People are blamed for poor leadership?
  • Poor leadership harms both business health and human health?
  • Leaders are overloaded and spend too much time firefighting?
  • Leaders struggle to meet the expectations of employees and other stakeholders?
  • Employees are unhappy with their leaders?
  • Leaders have difficulty responding to rapidly changing times?

The view of improving leadership by improving leader’s behaviours is a relic of the slow-moving analogue age, one in which leadership was viewed as an art. We now live in the digital age, and leadership must be viewed differently, as science, for leaders to be effective in the fast-moving digital age. 

Improving Leadership is a Science

As a professor, my research has long been directed to evolving leadership forward from a subjective, arts and social science view based on prescriptive rights to an objective, fact-based, science and engineering view informed by cause-and-effect. 

The research has explored these fundamental questions:

  • Can leadership be made for more specific and tangible, so that leaders can more easily identify what to improve and how to improve? 
  • Can a simpler, more practical method be created that will make leaders’ job easier, more productive, and more effective?
  • Can this result in a happier and more engaged workforce, one that can do its work more efficiently and with higher quality?

And can we go the extra mile and come up with something that meets the basic needs and interests of business, such as:

  • Lower the cost of leadership development
  • Simpler deployment across the organisation
  • More durable, lasting 20-30 years or more
  • Evolves in step with actual employee and business needs
  • Is independent of management system, function, or job
  • Customisable to meet individual needs
  • Rapid translation into practice
  • Make leadership accessible to more people to expand internal pools of candidates for promotion

If you can do this, it would be something that has never been done before! The question is, how would leadership development have to change in order to achieve these objectives? First of all, you’d have to think differently about the work of leadership.

Leaders do not view what they do as processes. They see it as a collection of activities that vary widely from day to day. But if leadership was viewed as processes, it would open up a whole new world for understanding leadership and how to improve it.

Leadership as Processes

As is always the case in traditional process improvement activities, once we understand the work as a process, we are able to easily identify problems and make tangible improvements. Understanding work as processes gives us a much better understanding of time, information, and information flow, which are critical parameters for business success.

If we understand leadership as processes – 15 or so specific processes – then we can then easily identify specific leadership process errors. Once the leadership process errors are identified, they become the basis for improvement. We can then use whatever simple method one already knows – PCDA, kaizen, standardized work, or visual controls, etc., to improve leadership practice, both individually and as a leadership team. 

Importantly, there is no grad theory underlying this approach. Instead, it is the practical reality that everyone can easily recognize as true.

One finds that there are a lot of leadership errors. Any leader will easily recognize the errors as having been made by their boss or having made in relation to their subordinates – common everyday errors that every leader makes, usually again and again, multiplied by the many leaders that work in organizations, from supervisor to CEO. Seen in that light, there is a pressing need to improve leadership in all organizations. 

When we understand leadership as processes, we begin to understand leadership in a new way, one that is critically important for doing business in the digital age: time, information, and information flow. 

I call this innovation “Speed Leadership” because it enables leaders to do their work better and faster, and enables their subordinates to do the same without any additional burdens. The research has been summarized in a small, 148-page workbook that you will find well worth reading. Leaders are busy people. They want what is simple and effective. That’s what Speed Leadership is.

Employees’ Perspective

What do followers want? They want great, error-free leadership, not only so they can focus on their work and be more effective team members, but because it informs them that their leaders respect them. That, in turn, unlocks employee dedication, enthusiasm, creativity, and innovation – qualities that all organizations need in abundance in the digital age.

It is helpful to think of leadership is a service provided to followers. An error-prone leader is not what employees want. Only one or two in ten leaders’ service is considered by employees to be good or great. Why is that? It is because the good-to-great leaders make fewer errors. Understanding leadership as processes makes errors visible and greatly expands the opportunity for quickly improving leadership skills and capabilities.

The book Speed Leadership dives into the details of leadership processes, the errors, and gives examples of some simple, practical methods that can be applied to improve leadership.

Speed Leadership is a new beginning to the understanding and practice of leadership, in perfect harmony with the digital age.