A few days ago I received my latest issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. Generally I don’t have too high an opinion of academia-driven leadership analyses, but lately the Sloan Review has been chock full of insightful nuggets. We often discuss the power of people, the oft-forgotten second pillar of lean manufacturing, and an article in this issue provides yet another reason why they are important.
Vigilant leaders are those who make a practice of being abundantly
alert and deeply curious so that they can detect, and act on, the
earliest signs of threat or opportunity. They seek to nurture equally
vigilant employees by modeling such behavior and by providing
incentives for managers to look for — and interpret — weak signals.
Having people that are trained to identify threats or opportunities, and then act on that knowledge, requires a recognition that people are more than just a pair of hands that cost a few bucks an hour. They have brains, creativity, and experience that adds value. They are an asset.
Vigilance is not just a leadership trait, it is something to be valued in all employees. The machine operator that notices a subtle trend with increasing defects, the order entry clerk that notices increasing orders from companies in a certain market segment, the lawn maintenance guy that notices a small but growing crack in the wall of a $100M factory.
Such vigilance is a skill most valued in its absence. The words no board or investor wants to hear about a company’s leaders are "they ignored the warning signs" or "they missed the boat." On a positive side, vigilant leaders can spot opportunities and threats before rivals. Boards don’t expect prescience, but they do rely on the leadership team to sense and act on early warning signs of trouble, or opportunity.
Vigilant leaders are different from leaders that simply strive for operational excellence. According to the authors, the characteristics of vigilant leaders are:
- focuses externally and stays open to diverse perspectives
- applies strategic foresight and probes deeply for second order effects
- encourages others to explore widely by creating a culture of discover
Their definition of "operational leader" seems more like "operational manager" to me… leaders are inherently expected to be more. But the bottom line is that it is amazing what people can do…