Wishing for Change


In the context of both Lean management and a professional networking site such as LinkedIn or on social media such as X, the discourse is filled with post after post telling top leaders that they must do this or they must do that to be better leaders. Like many others, I have done a lot of that in the past, and, true though it may be, I do not see it as worthwhile to do it in the future. Leaders follow their own traditions and prerogatives.

Being a top leader means you don’t have to do anything other people tell you to do, especially when it comes from one’s inferiors. And in many cases, CEOs don’t listen to their boss, the board of directors because they tend to be deferential to the person who is in charge day-to-day. It is, after all, professional courtesy for the board to allow the CEO to achieve their vision for the company. If things get really bad, the board will act. But until then, the CEO has the freedom to do as they please.

Over the years I have learned that telling top leaders, and even those one or two or three levels down, that they must do this or they must do that to be a better leader does not work very well. In most cases, leaders interpret well-meaning feedback as an unreasonable demand and highly presumptuous. Perhaps more importantly, they will likely interpret it as an insult given their status and professional achievements, especially when it comes from their inferiors — people lower in status, less accomplished, less educated, or all three. When this happens, leaders do not respect us. We come across as fools, not the sages we think we are.

Top leaders often commission expensive employee surveys only to find that the results, including employees’ comments, suggest that top leaders must do this or must do that. Predictably, many (most?) leaders take little or no action because the feedback is coming from their inferiors who, in their view, should be grateful to them for having a job and the resources needed to do their job. The apparent ingratitude suggests to leaders that no action is necessary, especially if the company is doing well financially. And their inferiors are helpless to force accountability. Morale or other similar types of problems are quickly solved when people leave the company.

So much of what gets posted on LinkedIn amounts to a cry for improvement (Lean, Agile, neuroscience, psychological safety, kaizen, etc.) based on nothing more than wishful thinking:

Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs based on what might be pleasing to imagine, rather than on evidence, rationality, or reality. It is a product of resolving conflicts between belief and desire… In addition to being a cognitive bias and a poor way of making decisions, wishful thinking is commonly held to be a specific informal fallacy in an argument when it is assumed that because we wish something to be true or false, it is actually true or false.

Prescription 2

With respect to LinkedIn, the best we can do via that medium is to present ideas (new or old; old because what’s old is often new again), pose penetrating questions, and deeper analysis of causal mechanisms and practical countermeasures. Post things that are more akin to a menu that leaders can freely learn or choose from rather than write a prescription for what they must do.

The Lean community wants wholesale change in leadership thinking and practice. In general, change comes about through slow evolution. Or, it can come faster through sustained socio-political action. The Lean community prefers to talk about what leaders must do rather than what they must do: organize to influence or compel leaders to change in ways that are more consonant with the times and the wants and needs of current and future employees.

Many Lean professionals are disgruntled with business leaders, but they are also quite comfortable in their job and in life. So, think about what should be on the menu that leaders can learn or choose from rather than writing them prescriptions.

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