Lead With Humiliation

Very early in my Lean adventure as a new VP of Operations, when the idea of listening to workers was still a little strange, I returned from a week vacation to find that two of my peer managers had teamed up to convince the company president that I had “turned over the asylum to the inmates” and lost control of the factory. “It sounds like communism,” the president told me, “what do you think you’re doing. Your managers say you’re ignoring their concerns.” For a minute I was too floored to speak. My accusers had expressed their concerns to me about “losing control” shortly before my vacation but I had no idea how desperate they were. These managers, call them Bob and Bill, were both what I considered good transactional leaders – give them a set process and they would dependably lead like field generals. They were good keepers of the status quo. In this case the generals had planned a sneak attack. Fortunately, I had enough ammo to calm my boss’s concerns and hold my position: “Our employees are not complaining about the company,” I explained, “They’re noting problems that affect their output – and we’re fixing them.” The battle was over, but my leadership in the matter had been called into question – a little humiliating.

Recalling the golden rule, I resolved to be magnanimous with the managers who threw me under the bus, rationalizing that it was an idea they were afraid of, not me. The phrase “Lead with Humility” now a foundational principle of the Shingo Prize was not yet in my vernacular, but ironically, I was the one accused of arrogance. I was defending an ideal, but the attack was directed to me.

About a year into the journey, Bob ‘flipped over’ from the dark side. Of course that doesn’t really describe the change. “Transformation” is sometimes mistaken to be a miraculous sudden act, when it is usually a slow, reflective process. It took him some time, but he eventually bought into new thinking and then became passionate. Bill on the other hand continued to damn the effort with faint praise. When the Lean journey hit some rocks around 1987 he led a band of naysayers once again to the president’s office, this time to throw both me and Bob under the bus. This attack was blunted by my learned practice of keeping the boss up to date and also the fact that now Bob was now also a passionate advocate. Nevertheless, I still found myself front and center in the president’s office flying cover for a fledgling Lean transformation. “Are you certain we’re doing the right thing?” I was asked. “Yes, definitely” I responded all the while privately wondering if we could make good on this assertion. One of my hero’s and perhaps the most prototypical transformational leader in memory, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” I think he meant, “Lead with Humility.” Yet, in order to advance the ideal I needed to speak at that moment with bravado.

In the space of another year we had gained enough collective momentum in our Lean journey to quell a decreasing number of skeptics. A good process was leading to consistently better business results as well as elevated morale. At this point it became considerably easier to lead with humility. I was asked about this time to speak at a conference to the topic: “Survival of the Change Agent.” I declined at first, offering that it would look like grandstanding. But the appeal came back: “Won’t you please reconsider as we are having a hard time finding change agents that have survived.”

This is the challenge for transformational leadership and perhaps why there are so few transformational leaders even today. It exacts a toll that a reasonable person might not be willing or able to pay.

Do you have a transformational leader in your organization? Share a success secret or private frustration.


BTW: Our 8th annual Northeast Shingo Prize Conference was a great gathering of transformational leaders. We’re expanding on that theme in 2013: “True North – Set Your Course and Make Waves” at The Hyannis Resort & Conference Center on September 24-25, 2013. Save the date and reserve early to get a big discount.

6 thoughts on “Lead With Humiliation

  1. pcwilson5211

    The first two years were difficult. Learning the new lean tool kit while clumsily implementing it plus changing a static, change averse culture led to a lot of conflict at all levels of the organization including the staff level. Managers squared off for direct conflict and some waged guerrilla warfare. My leadership and wisdom were called into question directly and indirectly. My patience was tested often.

    My secrets were not quitting no matter what, admitting mistakes, cheering successes, serving on Kaizen events, teaching skills and pushing myself to learn the Lean tool kit too. Like a sports coach starting up a new program, I worked at finding those teammates who could help us “win games” and funneled resources to them while removing obstacles. Winning games help silence critics and win converts. As we “won” Kaizen events, I used those successes to build momentum. We turned a corner when I received the first complaints about a department NOT being on the Kaizen schedule instead of the reverse.Yes, we were more proficient at applying lean tools but a cultural shift had occurred as well.

  2. GMo

    I think your headline was supposed to read Lead with *Humility*”? Leading with humiliation isn’t leadership at all and your essay seems to strongly support that.
    I enjoy your blog and as an OB/OM guy I especially appreciate your nod to the behavioral aspects of OM in this essay.

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