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by Karissa Smart — from Dr. Saleh's Leadership and Organization Bootcamp

In today's fiercely competitive business environment, organizations are always on the lookout for ways to improve efficiency and productivity. The concept of lean organizations is an approach that has gained immense popularity. These organizations focus on optimizing customer value by reducing waste. However, achieving success in this endeavor requires more than just relying on processes and systems. Leadership plays a crucial role in steering the organization in the right direction. Ethical leadership is particularly vital for lean organizations, as it fosters a culture of trust, integrity, and accountability. In this article, we explore the fundamentals of lean organizations, the pivotal role of leadership in their success, and why ethical leadership is the cornerstone of building a sustainable culture of excellence.

Just as certain processes are value-added and non-value-added, leadership behaviors are similar. Ethical leadership behaviors are value-added to any organization while unethical leadership behaviors can be considered toxic and non-value-added to an organization’s goals.

Unethical Leadership Behaviors

Unethical leadership behaviors can be particularly harmful in a lean organization, where every employee's contribution is crucial to the success of the company. One common example of unethical leadership behavior is rigidity or inflexibility. When leaders are unwilling to listen to feedback or change direction when necessary, it can lead to missed opportunities and decreased morale among team members. In a lean culture, where innovation and adaptability are essential, rigid leadership can stifle creativity and prevent the organization from responding quickly to changing market conditions.

Another example of unethical leadership behavior is the imposing of unrealistic expectations. When leaders set goals that seem impossible to achieve, employees may become disengaged or feel like they're constantly falling short. This can lead to burnout and turnover, which can be especially damaging in a lean organization with limited resources. In a lean culture, where employees are empowered to work efficiently and with a sense of purpose, unrealistic expectations can undermine their sense of accomplishment and lead to a decrease in motivation.

Blaming is another unethical leadership behavior that can have a negative impact on an organization. When leaders fail to take responsibility for their mistakes and instead blame others, it can lead to a culture of fear and mistrust. But most importantly, when leaders blame their team for not meeting certain key performance indicators (KPI’s), or achieving desired organizational outcomes. This can be particularly damaging in an organization where trust and collaboration are important for achieving success. In a lean culture, where employees are empowered to work collaboratively to solve problems and improve processes, blaming can undermine team cohesion and impede organizational success.

Impediments to Lean Success

Let’s look into a hypothetical example of how these unethical leadership behaviors can really impede an organization’s success.

A medical practice just received some tough news from its manager. During a monthly meeting, the manager told the department that they needed to increase their productivity by 25%, which meant that each medical provider had to see about five extra patients per day. To do so, the scheduling template was being adjusted to accommodate more patients, and it was going into effect the following month.

The manager was very rigid with the direction he demanded and didn't allow any room for discussion or questions. Everyone in the department felt pressured and stressed about meeting this new goal. Medical teams couldn’t help but wonder if there were other avenues for increasing revenue other than increasing productivity. However, they were not given the opportunity to voice their worries or concerns which decreased morale and overall motivation to achieve the goals.

A 25% increase in productivity seemed like an unrealistic expectation to the medical team. They instantly felt disengaged and worried about their work-life balance. Medical teams feared they would experience burnout and the quality of care they gave their patients would suffer. They were filled with self-doubt as their current level of productivity was barely manageable, and they were expected to achieve more without any additional support or resources. This resulted in immediate undesired turnover throughout the department.

Right away, medical teams reluctantly began using this new template. After about three months, the manager shared the outcomes of the change. To everyone’s surprise, the established goals had not been met. When the team failed to meet these unrealistic expectations, the manager blamed them for not working hard enough and threatened to take disciplinary action against them. With an increased sense of urgency, the manager told the medical teams that the organization’s failure would be directly related to their lack of productivity. This led to a culture of fear and mistrust, prolonging the teams' lack of productivity.

Each of these unethical leadership behaviors created a lot of stress and anxiety among the team, and many employees were afraid of losing their jobs. Despite their concerns, the manager refused to listen to feedback and pushed them harder. The high levels of pressure and lack of support from their leader made it challenging for them to perform at their best, and they started to see an increase in undesired turnover and a decline in the quality of their work.

Benefits of Ethical Leadership

When we think of ethical leadership, we might picture a leader who is honest, transparent, and fair. But ethical leadership goes beyond just these qualities; it also involves the antithesis of negative traits such as rigidity or inflexibility, imposing unrealistic expectations, and blaming. When leaders avoid these behaviors, or better yet, replace them with an ethical purpose, they can have a significant positive impact on the organization they lead.

Firstly, ethical leaders avoid rigidity or inflexibility. This means that they are open to new ideas and adaptable to change. Lean organizations thrive when there is constant innovation and improvement efforts among all members of the organization. Leaders who are open and flexible can inspire their team to be creative and innovative, leading to a more agile and responsive organization.

Secondly, ethical leaders do not impose unrealistic expectations on their team. Instead, they are realistic about what can be achieved and set achievable goals. Those who wish to foster a lean culture must set goals that are challenging but achievable. The best way to achieve this is to involve those closest to the work, get them invested in the direction of the organization by understanding the “why” behind the goals, and believe that the goals are achievable. Leaders who do this create a positive and productive work environment that enables their team to succeed.

Thirdly, ethical leaders do not blame others when desired outcomes are not achieved. As leaders, we must be hard on the process and easy on the people. Leaders can practice this by taking ownership of unclear processes and procedures and work collaboratively with their teams to help facilitate process improvements that lead to solutions. In a lean organization, where every team member's contribution is crucial, this quality is essential. This effort can spark creativity and innovation that helps build a positive and supportive work environment.

Benefits to Lean Success

Let’s look at another hypothetical example of a manager who avoids unethical leadership behaviors around rigidity or inflexibility, imposing unrealistic expectations, and blaming and instead replaces it with adaptability, setting achievable goals, and being hard on the process and easy on the people.

A medical practice just received some tough news from its manager. During a monthly meeting, the manager told the department that while productivity had not decreased, the continuation of current productivity and revenue was not going to financially sustain the organization long-term. The manager proposed a potential solution that included increasing productivity by 25%. He calculated this to show the monetary increase and how this could fill the gap that the organization needs to sustain. Thereafter, the manager opened the floor for a collaborative discussion that involved the teams’ ideas and input.

While the manager established the direction the team needed to go, he did not tell the team how to get there. Instead, the manager was open and flexible to new ideas. This allowed for collaboration, creativity, and innovation throughout the entire department.

The team initially thought achieving a 25% increase in productivity was impossible. The manager worked with the team to set incremental goals over a period of nine months rather than aiming for an immediate increase. The team was promised the necessary resources and support to help them meet their targets. This approach enabled the team to succeed and fostered a positive and productive work environment.

By setting goals and achieving consensus among all team members, the team embarked on a journey to enhance productivity. They conducted experiments, measured outcomes, and identified the reasons that hindered their progress. Even when they failed to meet their objectives, the manager remained focused on the process, showing empathy, and understanding to the team. The manager's flexibility and collaborative approach enabled the team to overcome any obstacles and achieve their targets while simultaneously fostering a positive and supportive work environment.

While it was evident that the team needed to increase productivity very quickly, the leader was flexible and willing to listen to employee feedback, included them in setting goals, and sought to understand the process and how to remove roadblocks when goals were unmet. This created a sense of empowerment and ownership among the team, and they felt motivated to work harder to achieve the goals. As a result of this leader's approach, they were able to meet the targets while maintaining the quality of their work.

When comparing the outcomes of each example described above, you can see how influential leadership behaviors can be. Leaders who avoid rigidity or inflexibility, impose realistic expectations, and avoid blaming others can have a significant positive impact on their team and organization. By creating a supportive and productive work environment, ethical leaders can inspire their teams to be innovative, creative, and achieve their goals. At this point, a lean culture is one step closer to being on autopilot.

In conclusion, ethical leadership is crucial for the success of lean organizations. It is time for leaders to adopt ethical leadership practices and create a culture of transparency, honesty, and respect where employees are valued and empowered to contribute to the organization's success. Let us all take a step towards ethical leadership and ensure the success of lean organizations.

In the end, leadership is a choice. It is not a level of hierarchy.


Karissa is a leader in healthcare administration with a passion for leadership and its ability to drive positive change. With an undergraduate degree in Business Leadership and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification, Karissa brings an intentional perspective to the table, focused on improving outcomes and reducing waste. Her leadership style is characterized by a collaborative approach, always seeking input from her team members and empowering them to make decisions. Karissa firmly believes that by fostering a culture of continuous improvement and encouraging innovation, healthcare organizations can achieve better outcomes for both patients and staff.

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