Leadership for all

Published on
January 15, 2024
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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FEATURE - If you think you are born a leader, you are wrong. Leadership can be learned, and in this article the author provides a four-step guide to developing it.

Words: Julie Chevalier

Leadership is not a gift; It is the result of a learning journey. It's a skill and, like any skill, it requires hours of practice to grow. Just ask athletes and artists!

Years ago, when I joined the Institute Lean France, I was lucky enough to be part of the lean engineering community of practice. After watching Michael Ballé and Cécile Roche grow this movement, I tried to capture and put into practice their leadership model to create my own lean manufacturing community. Based on my experience and endless hours of discussions with my colleagues, it became clear to me that there are four steps to developing your own leadership skills.

What's important is that this approach is not another bureaucratic process to follow step by step, but a guide to self-reflection of your skills, so that you can identify areas for improvement and therefore have more impact on your teams, your company and - why not - society.

First, you need to take a step forward to tackle a problem you want to solve or test an idea. After that, you'll move on to the second step: recruiting allies and setting up your communication structure. If your idea is strong enough, you will quickly attract followers. They will then need your caring and generous support to deepen their involvement. Finally, you need to look ahead to the strategic change you're going to make. And because changing habits isn't easy, you need to track your results and decide which changes to adopt, adapt, or let go of.

Step forward

The first step is the spark. Stepping forward sounds easy, but challenging the status quo isn't – especially when the existing system is defending it and you're facing opposition from the defenders.

When Mathieu, the factory manager of a manufacturing company, decided to lean transformation, he started by looking at his customers' complaints. This soon led him to the shipping department. He began by explaining his vision to the freight forwarding team in very simple terms: "If we want to satisfy our customers, we first need to understand what's going on with our shipping process and investigate why orders are left on the shelves while others are delivered late." He then helped the team get started and asked the team to install a simple board in the space to track planned shipments versus shipments that were actually going out the door. After that, he went to the gemba regularly, but it took a very long time for this sign to appear! After two years, he finally succeeded: the sign was placed in the area where trucks depart, and the team has a physical place to discuss problems and do kaizen.

What happened then? Mathieu stepped forward and stayed the course, facing the status quo and the resistance of its defenders, until the spark created a fire. He knew that customer satisfaction depends on teams solving day-to-day problems by getting involved in kaizen activities and testing original countermeasures. So he took the initiative for the dispatch schedule and went to the gemba every week to communicate with his team and listen to the challenges they were facing. Along the way, he learned to stay calm around status quo defenders and never surrendered. He had a clear vision and kept repeating and reformulating why it was precisely in this area that progress was so important. The other important lesson from Mathieu's story is how he chose the problem to tackle. His direction was crystal clear: people – both customers and the team.


But no one can really lead alone. This brings us to the second step in developing your leadership: finding allies. Without allies willing to help you, your initiative will be nothing more than a blank. This step requires identifying the communication structure in your organization and mastering persuasive communication.

I'll give you an example. Once upon a time, Cécile Roche, Christophe Richard and I - all from the Institut Lean France - step forward and have a lean Manufacturing Community of Practice. We secretly thought that this would work on its own, because we knew that there was an existing need for a space where production people could come together and discuss. Why wouldn't it work? So we designed the plan, we planned, we organized. When we were ready to tell the world that something amazing was coming, what do you think? Nothing happened! Hardly anyone signed up. I remember a discussion with my team when we finally realized that we had failed at the second step: we hadn't paid enough attention to our communication. As a result, we were on our own, with no allies for our brilliant idea. We decided to stop what we were doing (designing, programming, marketing...) and start from scratch by taking a good look at how we structured our communication, identifying allies and recruiting them one by one. And this time it worked!

The most important insight here is to move from the classic "who does what?" approach to a "who talks to whom?" approach.  This can really turn an idea into a feasible project.


We quickly realized that in order to build this community, we needed more than a few allies. We needed a community of followers. The third step of leadership development refers to just that: supporting followers. Growing a community of followers happens organically. You don't really need to recruit them using your persuasive communication, as you do for allies. Supporting followers involves maintaining your network by showing care, being generous, acknowledging people's contribution, encouraging them to get involved, and bringing new people with you. You don't have to speak to them every day, but you have to acknowledge their existence, even if they are not allies, recognize that they play a key role in this new movement. When it comes to this, you need to see and treat everyone as a key player.


Once a leader has tackled a problem, recruited allies by determining the communication structure by "who should talk to whom," and taken adequate care of followers, they will need to develop one last skill: their ability to commit to strategic changes and help people cope with the consequences of those changes.

Committing to strategic change means recognizing the challenges ahead and making the pivots needed to adapt to new circumstances. You can start by asking yourself simple questions: What is the timeline you have in mind? When you think about the future, do you see it in three months, six months, a year, more?  Then try to go deeper: what happens when you shift the horizon from three months to three years? From three to five years? Will the problems you're working on still be as important in three years' time? What are the obvious obstacles between your current situation and your future situation? What difficult problems require your attention here and now because they will only get bigger in the future? And where exactly do you need to step forward, recruit allies and support a community of followers?

Broadening horizons to look beyond short-term results is key to developing and retaining your leadership.

In our lean Manufacturing community, for example, many issues are still on the table and require strategic steps: sustainability, the reindustrialization of the country, artificial intelligence and new technologies, shrinking markets and inflation, supply chain shortages... These challenges are happening now, and it's vital to ask ourselves how they will shape our future. What are the strategic twists and turns that the community needs to consider in order to stay alive in five years? And in 10 years?

Mind you, no one likes to change habits, which means you're constantly dealing with change management and checking in with people. Change is a natural part of life, but our emotional reactions to it can be difficult to handle. Leaders need to show empathy by listening, mirroring, and acknowledging people's emotions so they know they are not alone.

Finally, once the leader has committed to the change and managed the emotional responses of the people affected by it, they need to look at the results of the previous plan and decide whether they should implement it more intensively or simply pivot.


There is no recipe for a great leader, but the good news is that leadership can be learned. We can develop our leadership capabilities by putting these four steps into practice: coming forward on an issue, building allies, supporting followers, and committing to and following through on change. This self-reflection guide can be your path to getting serious about developing your leadership skills and helping others to be greater leaders tomorrow.


Julie Chevalier is a lean coach and member of Institut Lean France

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