We’ve all heard the flight attendant’s compulsory safety announcement regarding oxygen masks. Personally, I’ve grown pretty numb to the whole safety monologue.

Not a good thing.

During a relatively recent trip on a Southwest flight there was a refreshing twist to the typically sober announcement.

It went something like this, “In the event of a sudden loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with two small children, decide now which one you love more.”

Pretty funny.

But, the truth is there’s a reason that the parent (or guardian) should don the mask first and THEN attend to his or her charge(s). The parent needs to maintain his mental and physical faculties so that he can effectively take care of others. This is not self-serving.

So, this leads (surprise, surprise!) to a lean metaphor.

Lean leaders need to put on the oxygen mask first.

The “oxygen” here is lean competency.

Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis in their book, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence through Leadership Development, which I highly recommend, captures this notion well.

Their Toyota Way Leadership Model reflects the following. Please note the ORDER.

  1. Commit to Self-Development. Learn to live True North values through repeated learning cycles,
  2. Coach and Develop Others. See and challenge true potential in others through self-development learning cycles,
  3. Support Daily Kaizen. Build local capability throughout for daily management, and
  4. Create Vision and Align Goals. Create True North vision and align goals vertically and horizontally.

Leaders can’t teach what they do not have. So, they must first put on the oxygen mask of understanding (or at least genuinely commit to and begin to walk the road to understanding) before they can effectively and credibly BEGIN to coach and develop others.

With that, good luck deciding which colleague you first assist with that oxygen mask thing.

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