Developing balanced leaders through Lean

Developing balanced leaders through LeanLean is a comprehensive management philosophy, and one important aspect of Lean is leadership. In this post, I will examine how adherence to Lean principles develops well-rounded leaders as measured through the lens of the 8 DISC leadership styles.

What are the 8 DISC leadership styles?

DISC is a method of behavior assessment that was first published in 1928 and has undergone several revisions since then. Its basic premises can be traced back to Hippocrates’ Four Temperaments.

DISC is based on measuring human behavior along two axes: from cautious and reflective to fast-paced and outspoken on one axis and from questioning and skeptical to accepting and warm on the other axis. The name DISC comes from the four major behavior types identified from these combinations: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness.


It should be noted that none of the types is inherently more valuable than others, nor do people clearly exhibit behavior of only a single type, and behavior can change when circumstances change.

That said, Jeffrey Sugerman, Mark Scullard, and Emma Wilhelm from Inscape publishing decided to venture into research on what type of leadership people with different DISC profiles typically use. From the data they gathered, they put together 8 leadership styles that they discuss in their 2011 book The 8 Dimensions of Leadership.

Pioneering leaders are fast-paced and outspoken. They are good at finding opportunities, stretching boundaries, and promoting bold action.

Energizing leaders are spontaneous, outgoing, and energizing. They show enthusiasm, build professional networks, and rally people to achieve goals.

Affirming leaders are positive, supportive, and approachable. They are good at acknowledging contributions, being approachable, and creating a positive environment.

Inclusive leaders are collaborative and understanding. They stay open to input, show diplomacy, and facilitate dialogue.

Humble leaders are cautious, self-controlled, and soft-spoken. They are fair-minded, show modesty, and maintain their composure.

Deliberate leaders are objective and unlikely to show emotions. They are good at communicating clearly, promoting disciplined analysis, and providing a sense of stability.

Resolute leaders are highly determined and persistent. They set high expectations for themselves as well as others, speak up about problems, and improve methods.

Commanding leaders are competitive, driven, and assertive. They show confidence, take charge, and focus on results.

For each positive trait, there are also negative consequences. For example, spontaneous leaders may skip sufficient analysis and determined leaders may come across as blunt. They key to leadership is to find balance: each leader leads in a unique way, and usually favors one of the eight styles over the others, but developing a level of competence in the other leadership styles is needed in order to become a versatile and effective leader.

Developing balanced leaders through Lean

As a comprehensive management philosophy, Lean takes a clear stance on how to improve and lead a company. I have often spoken of Lean as standing on three pillars:

  • Perfection of the product
  • Perfection of the process
  • Perfection of the individual

It is only by applying each of these pillars that a company can truly call itself Lean. The one that is most often left by the wayside is perfection of the individual – enabling personal growth for each employee at a company by involving them in making the company better.

Following the Lean philosophy helps a leader cultivate many of the desirable leadership traits:

Pioneering: Perfection requires venturing somewhere others have not gone. A Lean company cannot satisfy itself to following best practices, but is always pushing for improvement and the unknown.

Energizing: Participation in Lean motivates through the level of autonomy, relatedness, and mastery each employee is entitled to. Co-operation and networks are needed, and this aspect can be further strengthened by using social collaboration as part of a Lean program.

Affirming, inclusive, humble: Gemba, the place where the work is done, holds a special value in Lean. It is at the gemba that problems are truly understood, and a Lean leader often visits the gemba to gain insight from people there.

Deliberate: At the heart of Lean improvement lies the PDSA cycle, the scientific approach to analysis and problem-solving. Lean forces a leader to be analytical regardless of the leader’s natural tendencies.

Resolute: Perfection is a high goal, one that is natural for a resolute leader to set. Problems are always brought up and emphasized in Lean, and the improvement of methods is a key part of the perfection of the process.

Commanding: Measurable results are a key part of Lean.

Lean leadership excels at analysis and striving for improvement (perfection), but also on areas not traditionally associated with process-based thinking, such as valuing the input of each individual and promoting the autonomy, relatedness, and mastery of everyone at the company.

So why is Lean not more common? While Lean is in general highly motivating in the long term, it can be difficult to get it started. There are not that many things in Lean that naturally promote creating a positive atmosphere and energizing people right from the start. If anything, the high goals of Lean can feel intimidating. If you can’t get people to give a good thing a try, they’ll never know what they’re missing.

Lean leadership in real life

I have applied Lean thinking as a leader for several years. My natural leadership style is resolute: analytical and outspoken, never hiding from a problem or a challenge. With Lean as a guideline, I have spent hours upon hours in the gemba to the point where it is my default method, my habit, for problem recognition and problem-solving. This naturally opens me up for contributions from other people and I have incorporated countless proposals (usually from people who are doing actual work, not managing it) to improvement plans that I have coordinated. I am still working on the energizing and lighter side of things, as Lean does not give as good tools for those as it does for the analytical side (PDSA) – yet this is an aspect a successful Lean leader needs to master as well.

A deliberate leader I used to work with was repeatedly surprised at the positive response he received when he dared to venture to the gemba. Unfortunately, despite my pushing, I was unable to form this into a habit for him. It is difficult to form new habits, even when there are positive results.

I have found Lean to have particularly much to offer to affirming and inclusive leaders, who feel at home engaging with people at the gemba and benefit from the analytical framework Lean provides them with. They are already comfortable facilitating a group toward a solution, and getting a better map on how to achieve effective solutions really unleashes their potential as leaders.

Commanding leaders, on the other hand, have been the most difficult to bring over to a Lean mindset. Getting such leaders to acknowledge the contribution of others and co-create things with others has been a major challenge. If successfully initiated to Lean, commanding leaders do have great potential as a driving force for improvement.

To summarize the above, Lean provides paths to develop all kinds of leaders to become more multi-dimensional and balanced. Recognizing the leadership styles of people can help figure out how they can be motivated to take up Lean and how Lean can help them become more balanced leaders. The area where Lean is weakest is in energizing, although presence at the gemba is a good prerequisite for energizing – it just needs more to supplement it.

Photo: Hope for Balance by Bob Miller @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.