My oldest is a fourth class cadet (actually a “swab”) at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He is (hopefully!) enduring a 7 week orientation (think boot camp) called Swab Summer in which he becomes a member of the armed forces, prepares to join the Corps of Cadets, and is readied for the academic year.

It is not easy and there is no guarantee of success. More than a few of the 290 swabs will DOR (drop on request), get medically discharged, etc. It’s extremely challenging physically, intellectually and emotionally. But, that’s one of the reasons that the USCG is the best coast guard in the world!

A common theme that is expressed around the Academy is that in order to become good leaders, the cadets must become good followers – especially in the important fourth class year (freshman). It’s a bottom up learning experience. Academy graduates are commissioned as ensigns within the CG.

So, why is followership so important? First of all, not everyone can be the supreme leader. That’s just plain impossible. You’ve got to have effective followers, ones who know how to follow individually and, more importantly, collectively as a team. It’s a prerequisite for execution and for developing an exceptional culture.

Given the dynamics of hierarchy and the fact that leadership is often a shared responsibility (we don’t want a bunch of lemmings), many folks will serve as leaders to others. And here’s a blinding flash of the obvious – if you don’t know how to follow, it’s really hard to be a good leader and mentor. Poor followers  often have a significant challenge understanding what their followers do and deal with within the  technical and emotional realm. Great leaders have a clue about the principles, systems and tools and they have empathy.

Another blinding flash of the obvious, when one is made a leader, it is not eternal and all encompassing. No one walking on this earth is perfectly complete. This means, every leader must be a follower at some time, in some way. It’s how you learn, how you grow and how you leverage the collective, value-creating strengths of the organization.

So, where am I going with this (especially in a lean context)? Effective lean leaders must also be good followers. The renowned Steven Spear‘s recent blog post (looooonnng title), Why C level executives don’t engage in ‘lean’…Two reasons: Delegate to ‘technologists’ or trained to decide, not discover and develop…, touches upon a bit of this phenomenon.

C level executives are often absent from ‘lean initiatives,’ ‘lean transformations,’ and the like.

This is unfortunate given the truthy cliche, “what is interesting to leaders, is fascinating to followers.”

The question is, “Why?”

Let me suggest two reasons:

  • Lean presented as a kit of system engineering tools which senior leaders feel they can delegate to technologists.
  • Senior leaders not taught/trained for an environment of continuous improvement/discovery.

Presumably, if C-level executives were better followers when it comes to lean, they would be better at truly leading lean transformations…and not bastardizing the implementation.

So, what followership things can executives do to boost their lean leadership effectiveness? Some thoughts:

  • Genuinely seek out other true lean leaders at bona fide lean organizations, visit, observe, ask stupid questions, and listen…with humility.
  • Fully participate (clear the calendar and bury the Blackberry) within kaizen activities (including values stream analysis) as a team member. Make it clear that you are there to contribute and to learn…and then do just that.
  • Consider hosting president’s kaizens with your staff, as facilitated by a respected sensei who will keep you and your staff honest (relative to kaizen standard work, lean principles and group dynamics) and ensure that you get meaningful stuff done.
  • Actually READ and STUDY those lean books that are on your book shelf.
  • After getting certified through a train-the-trainer process, train some of the folks in the organization in Lean 101.
  • Conduct routine gemba walks with your sensei (internal or external), listen, get grilled, try to answer and learn.
  • Spend a day or two as a front line associate, dealing with the stuff they deal with (warts and all) and following their standard work.
  • Spend a day or two as a mid-level lean leader, dealing with the stuff they deal with (warts and all) and following their leader standard work.

I am sure there are a bunch of other follower activities that can be added. What are your thoughts?

To the United States Coast Guard, thank you and Semper Paratus!

Related posts: Lean Leader Principle – Show Them Your Back, Humility, or What Does Dirt Have to Do with Lean?