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The Common Themes of Leadership at Toyota

Toyota leaders have a distinctive approach and philosophy that fits the Toyota Way. The two-dimensional leadership matrix helps depict what distinguishes leadership at Toyota from leadership at other companies. On the one hand, leaders can either rule by top-down directives or use a bottom-up involving style to develop people so they can think and make the right decisions on their own. We have seen repeatedly that Toyota leaders are passionate about involving people who are doing the value-added work in improving the process. Yet encouraging employee involvement by itself is not enough to define a Toyota leader. A second dimension requires an “in-depth understanding of the work” in addition to general management expertise. It was fashionable in the U.S. in the 1980s to think of the typical successful manager as an MBA who could walk into any business and instantly run it by looking at the numbers and using general management and leadership principles to whip the organization into shape. No self-respecting Toyota manager would subscribe to this notion.

The least effective manager in this model is top-down and has only general management expertise—the bureaucratic manager. This characterizes a large portion of U.S. managers. How effective can you be if you are trying to run the organization through command and control without any intimate understanding of what is going on? Your only choice is to make a lot of rules and policies and measure performance relative to those rules and policies. This leads to metrics-driven management that takes the focus away from satisfying customers or building a learning organization.

The bottom-up leader who wants to develop employees but does not really understand the work is called the group facilitator. The belief is that if a leader has strong facilitation skills, he or she can motivate employees to work together toward common goals. Facilitators are catalysts but cannot teach or guide the junior people on the content of the work. Leaders like these can be great at motivating teams and helping them to develop. But can they really coach or mentor others in what they do not understand? They don’t even have the expertise to judge excellent work and contributions from subordinates.

The next type is a top-down leader with a strong understanding of the work—an expert in the field—who lacks people skills and can be a tough taskmaster. The taskmaster treats subordinates like puppets, pulling all the strings at the right time, a major burden since one missed pull of a string might cause the work process to collapse. This type of leader is likely to be distrustful of others with less experience. Like the bureaucratic manager, he or she will give orders, but orders to do specific tasks exactly as ordered. This is the definition of micro-management.

By contrast, the Toyota leaders, by having a combination of in-depth understanding of the work and the ability to develop, mentor, and lead people, are respected for their technical knowledge as well as followed for their leadership abilities. Toyota leaders seldom give orders. In fact, the leaders often lead and mentor through questioning. The leader will ask questions about the situation and the person’s strategy for action, but they will not give answers to these questions even though they have the knowledge.

We show the Toyota leader as partially in all four of the quadrants in Figure 15-3. Each of these forms of leadership has a role at the appropriate time and place. But his or her primary leadership role is as builders of a learning organization—a distinctive strength of Toyota’s culture. The roots of Toyota leadership go back to the Toyoda family who developed Toyota Way Principle 9: Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.

If we look at all of the great leaders in Toyota’s history we see they share several common traits:

  • Focused on a long-term purpose for Toyota as a value-added contributor to society.
  • Never deviated from the precepts of the Toyota Way DNA and lived and modeled themselves around this for all to see.
  • Worked their way up doing the detailed work and continued to go to the gemba—the actual place where the real added-value work is done.
  • Saw problems as opportunities to train and coach their people.

A common phrase heard around Toyota is “Before we build cars, we build people.” The leader’s goal at Toyota is to develop people so they are strong contributors who can think and follow the Toyota Way at all levels in the organization. The leader’s real challenge is having the long-term vision of knowing what to do, the knowledge of how to do it, and the ability to develop people so they can understand and do their job excellently. The payoff for this dedication is more profound and lasting to a company’s competitiveness and longevity than using a leader merely to solve immediate financial problems, make the correct decision for a given situation, or provide new short-term solutions to bail a company out of a bad situation. A company growing its own leaders and defining the ultimate role of leadership as “building a learning organization” lays the groundwork for genuine long-term success.

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