Teaching Lean Leadership

Pens I give to students at the end of the course, as a reminder to apply what they learned to their job.

I have been teaching Lean leadership to graduate students for 15 years. They are mostly full-time working professions ranging from individual contributors to mid-level managers from a wide range of manufacturing and service companies, including local, state, and federal government. These people are earning graduate degrees in part to help them be more successful in their daily work and careers.

Ever wonder what it is like teaching them Lean leadership?

First of all, I never focus on theory, partly as a result of my industry experience and partly because I don’t think most students gain much from it. This course, as well as the other courses that I teach, focus on practical knowledge that people can put into use, to make life at work better for themselves and others both inside and outside the company. Students complete the course with a clear understanding of the things that they can do to begin their practice of Lean leadership, even if they work in a business ruled by conventional leadership ideas and practices.

At the start of the course, students are eager to understand what is Lean leadership, how it differs from conventional leadership, and what they need to do to become Lean leaders. By mid-term they have a very clear picture of this, and we build upon that throughout the last half of the semester. In their “real world” at work, most students observe a huge gap between how their bosses lead compared to the accomplished Lean leaders that we study.

Unfortunately, in every course since 2001, I have had to warn my students to be careful with their new found knowledge – usually by the third or fourth class, and then nearly every week thereafter. I have to do this because it soon becomes apparent to them that Lean leadership is markedly different – and better – than the conventional leadership they have lived under for many years.

My students desperately want Lean leadership from their leaders, and so they hatch plots to make that happen. Some want to share course materials with their boss to try to get them to change, a few want to confront their bosses directly and tell them how truly awful their leadership is, and others want to sneak papers I’ve written onto their boss’ desk. Their enthusiasm is fabulous, but it can lead to tragedy.

I advise caution because doing these things will likely upset the boss and could create insurmountable problems for themselves. I suggest that they carefully pick their opportunities to influence the boss, and that it may be months before the right moment comes along. And then, don’t expect too much. Most bosses will just say “Thanks” or “That’s nice,” and that’s the end of it for most students – but not all.

Some students have reported back to me that they were reprimanded by their supervisor for bringing “crazy leadership ideas” into the workplace. One student was suspended for a week. A few students likely ended up on layoffs list by aggressively challenging their boss or a senior executive on how they lead.

We always have discussions on who is responsible for change: Is it my leader’s job or is it my job? One of the things I tell students is that you cannot control your leader, but you can, to a great extent, control what you do. And, to become a capable Lean leader requires daily practice. So don’t wait for your leader to change; do what you can, usually quietly, within your own span of influence. Then, build upon your successes, reflect on your failures, and improve. Learn lean leadership by doing, steadily building your capabilities over time, and putting yourself in a better position to lead more people as your career unfolds.

For most students, my Lean leadership course is life-changing. They see a much better way to lead people. They see how to do good without doing harm. They see infinite possibilities. Yet, they are very annoyed by their managers, whom they think should know and practice Lean leadership. Leaders, highly paid as they are, and entrusted with great responsibilities, should know this stuff, but they don’t.

It upsets me that my students must struggle unnecessarily to apply what they have learned because their bosses stand in the way, despite supporting their pursuit of graduate studies. Industry leaders always tell us professors that we should teach practical things that are useful in industry. But, when we do that, our students often encounter great resistance when they try to put what they learned into practice. This suggests the continued existence of a strong decoupling between the realms of education and industry practice, seemingly more attributable to industry than it is to academia.

One thing is for sure, my Lean leadership course frustrates students as much as they are enlightened by it. Some students persevere, thankfully, but the reality is that most students eventually give up. Being in a leadership position does not make one a leader. My students need progressive leaders; leaders who are willing to learn from others and help people reach their potential.

You know, most of these problems would go away if I just taught a conventional leadership course featuring the usual stuff that everyone else teaches: personality, behaviors, and authenticity. But then what good is higher education if it does not to expose people to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new ways of doing things, to make the world a better place?

Student Feedback on My Courses:

“A majority of the most valuable lessons I learned [in my degree program] came from your courses. For that reason I would like to thank you. I found your courses to be the most informative and the most stimulating. The lessons you taught are valuable and I wish more managers would take your courses. It is clear to me now that the classroom environment you set has creating a lasting impression on me which I carry in my daily activities both at home and at work. Thank you for always taking feedback from students and modifying your classroom discussions and activities to stimulate a learning and developing environment. You are a true leader.”

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