Leadership: The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success?

With many articles, books and all the hype about leadership, why am I calling Leadership the Secret Sauce?  As organizational leaders we are often looking for the next “shiny” thing whether that “shiny thing” is a new methodology, new technology, philosophy or even a newly emphasized competency or character trait.  What I have seen in my career is that no matter the approach, the solution or the new skill set, the quality of leadership and how leaders lead will determine the success or failure of the initiative.

Let’s take a couple of examples such as Lean or process improvement. You can fill in other words if you’d like, e.g. supply change management, ERP, Six Sigma, etc.  What these examples of approaches, philosophies and methodologies all have in common is that are powerful and they work. However, what often happens is that in many organizations they do not deliver their full potential value.  How does it happen time and time again that leaders don’t seem to get it? What does it look like?

  1. Leaders brought the approach or methodology in because that is what everyone else was doing – It’s the “thing to do” syndrome
  2. Leaders sanctioned organization-wide training on the new approach but it remained separate from the core business activities and strategies
  3. The approach was listed as a stand-alone strategy NOT an enabler to key strategy
  4. Leadership was supportive while it initially seemed to work. Once the going got tough, they quickly focused elsewhere.
  5. No changes to organizational structure or job design were made to accommodate the new approach and take advantage of the benefits – Basically nothing changed other than a new overlay of complexity and busyness.
  6. Once there were any challenges to the status quo with the new methodology, it was allowed to die a slow death.
  7. When someone new comes into the company and recommends that the approach be implemented again the response is, “We tried that before but it didn’t work here.” No wonder!

As a young process engineer, I was easily mesmerized by the power of Deming’s plan-do-study-act methodology as well as process redesign, lean, six sigma and countless other methods, approaches and philosophies.  I was even fortunate enough to see many of them be very successful.  Looking back over the years I realize that it wasn’t the wonderful approach, the brilliant team or my finely honed skills as a facilitator 😉 that led to success. It was ultimately the depth and breadth of the executives’ leadership sensibilities and capabilities.  Were they 100% behind the approach? Did they see it as integral to the organization achieving its mission and strategy and ultimately its success? Were they willing to support it during the dark days and doldrums that always come once the excitement and newness have worn off?

In my latest book, Organizational and Process Reengineering Approaches for Health Care Transformation, I devote as many pages to the role of leaders and organizational culture as I do to a methodology.  I purposefully stayed methodologically agnostic, e.g. I am not proposing any one approach over another. I’ve come to realize the simpler the better. The key is engaging the leaders. And actually they should be engaging us!  It is after all their initiative and responsibility.

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