What would happen if a bus hit the one person at your company who really knew what was going on?

Every business has people who have become truly indispensable because of their skills, leadership or special knowledge. This fundamental truth was unmistakably verified during a recently completed series of benchmarking audits, as we met the superstar at company after company. Time and again, we got into a topic, and the superstar emerged—the only person in the place who knew how something or other worked.

Given that every organization has its superstar, the question is what happens when a bus hits the person who really knows what’s going on, and is truly key to getting things done?

I saw this firsthand a couple of years ago when one of these truly key people died in an all-terrain vehicle accident. At the time, we were counting on him to support a major technology transfer to another plant. The problem was that no one else knew the critical details that he knew. We eventually got the job accomplished without him, but it was a lot more difficult than it should have been.

So, what’s the answer? An insurance settlement wouldn’t have replaced the experience and expertise we lost when he died. What we needed was insurance, in the form of organizational leadership, to augment our overreliance on the leadership of key individuals.

The principles of organizational leadership have not been articulated as directly or as frequently as the principles of individual leadership, so I want to be clear about what I mean:

  • Clear, operationally relevant, realistic and universally understood intent allows for dispersed control. Messages are presented in a variety of ways, so everyone can grasp them and act on them consistently.
  • Organizational structure, procedures and policies dynamically adapt team activity to match the situation. Enough flexibility is built in so that change can be embraced without the need to re-engineer everything.
  • Teamwork, rules of conduct, standards of performance, routines and shared values reduce the need for complicated instructions. Initiatives are reinforced within the context of established norms to foster self-reliance.
  • Activities are spontaneously initiated to meet the challenge facing the organization. Visual queues trigger appropriate actions.
  • Proactive systems define reactive responses. Documented protocols state clearly what needs to be done in certain circumstances. A few illustrative examples might be work instructions, emergency procedures, kanban systems, poka-yoke tools, visual displays and self-directed continuous improvement activities.
The balance of individual leadership and organizational leadership is what drives a truly effective organization. Strong individual leaders, operating at all levels, provide the energy that drives the organization to succeed. The dispersed control of solid organizational leadership creates a robust organization that is best able to handle complex and rapidly changing situations.

Leadership, in both its forms, must exist as an integrating force throughout an organization. It’s obvious that individuals need to be active agents of change, but the elements of organizational leadership complement our reliance on these individuals. On the other hand, the forces of entropy and sociology are always at play against our desire to have everyone spontaneously do the right thing, so organizational leadership cannot go it alone. Ignoring either element of good leadership reduces our chance of maintaining organizational effectiveness.