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Are we willing to erode our future leadership capability?

future leadership capability

Will ‘nemawashi’ practicing leaders become more top-down and more impatient post COVID-19?

By Geerten Lengkeek

The Japanese future leadership capability is build on the principle of Nemawashi, which translates as ‘consensus building’ and contains elements of negotiation, influence, dialogue, persuasion and storytelling, originates from the words Ne (roots) and Mawashi (around). It’s a great analogy: you dig around the roots of a tree over time, before you transplant it to the new location, leaving it to flourish during and after the process. It’s the perfect metaphor for change and the underlying 13th principle of the Toyota Production System: Make decisions slowly by consensus.

The nemawashi process refines ideas and encourages creativity, promotes buy-in from the front line,  is a learning and coaching process,  helps create a continuous improvement culture, allows ideas to be floated without the fear of retaliation or embarrassment and practices the lean principle of Genchi Genbutsu: ‘Go see – ask questions – show respect’.

Leaders that practice this well will generally build successful teams and leave a legacy of sustainable high-performance well beyond their tenure. It’s in Jim Collins definition the ‘level 5 leaders’, the humble servants of their organisations, who ‘ask b4 tell’. Only these self-actualised leaders can rise above the personal and grasp the counterintuitive concept of iterative urgency, can be patient and inclusive and relentlessly focused on outcomes at the same time.

But I can hear the business owners thinking: “That was before COVID-19! Everything has changed! We’re locked down, shut down, our customers have stopped ordering, we’re bleeding cash, the bills pile up and we have stock that is no longer moving. Our teams are distraught, unmotivated and tunnel-visioned about their personal situation, not the success of my business! I need to cut costs, reduce overheads, improve productivity. We have NO TIME to ‘make decisions slowly by consensus’. As a business owner, I have to make the tough decisions, now. Whether the team likes it or not. It’s war out there, survival. I’ll rebuild trust and engagement when we get out of this. If we get out of this.”

Tough indeed, and make no mistake about it, we’re feeling the same pain and face the same uncertainty. But is there an alternative to the ‘tough decisions’ pathway? Your true principles and values only show when hard decisions have to be made (and in business it’s often when they cost you money).

It is possible to navigate this crisis where you have to make difficult decisions AND practice nemawashi. I firmly believe in people, in the principle that when you sow respect and integrity, you will reap engagement and performance. That if you share the predicament your business is in right now, and the tough choices you face as an organisation, your team will understand. It’s easier when you have a smaller organisation and can reach everyone personally or even 1:1, but today there are many ways you can reach your teams, even remotely. Reach out, explain, engage. You should not do this slowly – in fact now is the time to role-model resolve, action-orientation and robust thinking. And once the team understands, once you have consensus on the problem your business faces, it will be easier to put forward the tough decisions you are facing to seek (timely) feedback on. Again, reach out, explain, engage. The level of trust you have built with your teams in the past will be the key determinant of whether the teams follow you and continue to be engaged.

Know that your leadership will not be remembered by how you behaved when things were going well, or even when there was some headwind. It will be remembered from the year 2020, when we were in this full-blown crisis. A ‘no voice – no choice’ approach now with your team will certainly erode your future leadership capability by preventing you to lead your teams to greatness. Don’t waste this crisis, don’t waste your chance to be great.

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director Productivity People Ltd and the Co-founder of the Global Lean Alliance