Material Excerpts: Leadership of High Performance Systems




This material is reproduced from the seminar, Journey to Excellence, Copyright © 2005, Donald F. Barkman, The Business Center, Oak Ridge, TN, All Rights Reserved. A single copy may be made for the reader's personal use. For additional information, please contact The Business Center. Thank you.


Turning leadership roles into pragmatic behaviors is no easy task. The demands of leadership are many and complex. The amount of literature on leadership would take a lifetime to read with no time left to apply the learning.*


We will distill and condense common themes from a variety of sources to provide a composite profile of leadership. For the most part, the functions of leadership are not greatly different from one level to the next. What differs is the degree to which a responsibility is present in a role and how much certain behaviors must be used.


Leaders at different levels deal with different issues. First level leaders will handle issues dealing with operating technology (Technical). Top level leaders will handle issues related to financing the organization and markets to be served (Business). A common denominator across all levels is the interaction with people (Social). Every leader has similar responsibilities with respect to the teams he or she leads.


In this sample look at leadership, we will cover the following five topics. (There are 15 in the seminar material.) These demonstrate that leadership is not a simple act. It is a complex web of values and behaviors. These are highlights of areas considered to have an important impact on setting new courses and steering organizations to high performance. Here they are:

  • Visioning and Enlisting
  • Expectation Setting
  • Resource Providing / Obstacle Removal
  • Communicating
  • Aligning Systems / Organizational Renewal

As we journey through each of these descriptions of roles and behaviors, we will first introduce the essence of the topic and then identify specific actions taken by leaders at each of the three levels of the organization: top, middle, and first level.


We'll conclude this section with a close-up look at the first level leadership role and options organizations have employed to fill it. We'll also compare the characteristics of good leaders in both traditional and participative organizations.





Leaders are the prime movers in the creation of a vision and in enlisting support for its development. Their visions are often innovations to the organization -- new ways of thinking and acting. Leaders support innovation through their personal creativity and insight and by creating an environment for free thinking. They support organizational freedom of expression and protection for differences of opinion. They make it possible for others to dream and to bring innovations to the organization at all levels.


When it comes to creating entirely new forms of organization, leaders may create a vision themselves and then promote it for buy-in by others. This often happens when organizations are only in the planning stage and no one else is employed. The intrinsic appeal of the vision and the strength of the leaders' belief in it are key selling tools.


When an existing organization is moving toward self-direction, leaders may bring together a constituency from the organization to create the vision collectively. In this case, leaders manage the process of vision creation. Their views become one part of a larger range of input. Involving others in vision creation automatically increases commitment to it.


Leaders carry their vision both upward and downward in the organization. Part of the role of the leader is to explain the vision to others.


Top leaders may sell the vision to corporate managers or boards of directors. They use it to generate support and enthusiasm outside and inside the organization. They use it to attract supporters and new members.


Mid level managers sell the vision to first level leaders, to peers around the larger organization, and to outsiders like customers and suppliers. They translate the vision into concrete systems and structures.


First level leaders sell the vision to operating teams and help them convert it to a vision for themselves and their role in the total organization. They use it to create a sense of purpose for the team.





Leaders are looked to as the source of organizational expectations. In a self-directed organization, everyone eventually internalizes the expectations created by the vision and purpose of the organization. Leaders help this internalization occur and periodically keep it clarified and focused.


Leaders set expectations in a variety of ways. They formulate, or help teams formulate, performance goals. They discuss informal norms which the team applies to its members' behavior, e.g., "It's good to help each other," or, "Don't say anything bad about another team member -- just the other shifts." They surface unproductive norms and act to encourage productive ones.


Leaders check on things. The old adage, "People do what the boss inspects, not what he expects" is still valid. Team members naturally pay attention to what the leader pays attention to.


Even in a self-directed workforce leaders need to keep track of how things are going. The difference may be one of trust and style. In a self-directed environment, the assumption would be that things are going okay and if they are not, the team will tell the leader. The leader makes his own personal observations simply to stay in touch. Asking how something is going calls attention to it and elevates its importance. The interchange is more casual and the leader looks for additional needs or help he can provide. This is in contrast to the traditional assumption that something is wrong, is being hidden, and must be uncovered through interrogation of the workers or personal inspection.


Top level leaders set organization-wide goals that link the organization to its larger environment. These are goals for production, quality, delivery, cost or profit performance, community service, environmental compliance, etc. These goals are to ensure the organization continues to add value, survive, and grow. Top level leaders serve as sponsors for large projects and task forces. They communicate expectations and can arbitrate boundary issues.


Mid level leaders help first level leaders understand organization-wide goals. Once these are understood, they help first level leaders establish financial goals and performance measures for work teams consistent with the entire organization.


Mid level leaders also attend and participate in selected first level team meetings or projects. This gives the leader first hand exposure to the team members and their work processes. The mid level leader's presence lends importance to the activity and provides a forum for reinforcing the organization's expectations.


First level leaders help teams set goals for operating performance and the development of the team's total mix of skills.





Leaders secure resources. Resources are staff, equipment, time, money, and information among other things. Leaders reach out and bring to the work team what it needs to get the job done. They encourage and involve others in this process. They are the supply sergeants of World War II -- finding whatever it takes wherever it is. Leaders work to ensure enough resources exist and then allocate them for the benefit of the total organization.


Leaders remove obstacles. Leaders see that the minimum amount of rules are in place for the organization to function fluidly. They also identify when the rules need changed, bent, or broken. Sometimes rules imposed by traditional systems are dysfunctional within the self-directed organization. Leaders take the initiative to change those rules. They differentiate between what is simply policy and procedure and what is ethical and moral conduct before breaking a rule.


Top level leaders maximize organizational performance in order to create more resources for the organization (and increase its value to the owners). They plan long range needs based upon economic and competitive trends. They secure financing so the organization can grow and sustain itself. They allocate capital resources among organizational alternatives. Top leaders see that training programs and developmental experiences are in place so the organization develops the talents it needs. They guide the recruiting and leadership succession process to guarantee sufficient human resources are on hand.


Top leaders also challenge corporate policies or governmental regulations.


Mid level managers budget for expenses, capital, and staffing. They vigorously present their work units' needs for limited resources. They keep an organization-wide perspective and do not prevail at the expense of other departments and total organizational performance. They challenge other functions whose practices interfere with total organizational performance.


The first level of leadership pulls in staff resources from other departments to help smooth out work flows and solve technical or social problems. First level leaders see that adequate tools are available and that staffing levels are sufficient for the workload. They work with others and personally gather information the team needs. They challenge their leaders and other departments to provide resources and remove barriers in the forms of procedures, equipment, staffing, training, etc.





Leaders are communicators. In self-directed systems they not only pass along information they do three other things.


First, they make sure the information is understood. They see that people are educated so that information given in communications meetings make sense. They follow-up after communicating so see if what was perceived was the intended message. They provide additional clarification.


Second, they arrange information systems so that workers have direct access. They take the middle person out of the communications equation. They make direct connection between the customer and the work group possible. They arrange and promote interdepartmental exchanges.


Third, they listen. They don't just listen, they really listen. What's the difference?


Leaders who really listen draw out what the other person is saying and help that person make his or her message clear. The leader assumes the burden for understanding what is being said. The leader does not put the burden of making things clear solely on the shoulders of the other party. The really listening leader restates and confirms what the other person has said. The leader checks to be sure he or she has correctly understood both the facts and feelings being conveyed. A listening leader also provides a response. It may be empathy or sympathy for the employee's situation, it may be a commitment to take action, or it may be guidance on what the employee can do to help himself. None of this is revolutionary communications technique. Really listening leaders just do it well.


Top level leaders bring competitive and business information into the organization from outside its boundaries. They make themselves accessible to employees at all levels for the discussion of all sorts of issues. Their regular presence in the workplace contributes to their credibility and trustworthiness. Their direct listening serves to insure communications are not filtered and distorted on the way up the organization.


Mid level leaders pass information along: upward, downward, and laterally. They bring in information on innovation and regulation. They search for more effective means for sharing better quality information with a lower cost for its creation and management.


First level leaders pass information along: upward, downward, and laterally. They surface employee concerns so the organization can act on them. They keep their work groups focused on achieving organizational goals by seeing the team has timely performance information.





Leaders assure that systems are aligned for consistency and optimum total organizational performance. Maximizing a work process for the benefit of one unit at the expense of the total organization cannot be accepted. Leaders at each level are responsible for systems under their control.


Top level leaders see that organizational systems are aligned with the external environment. They have the responsibility to interface computer, accounting, personnel, order entry, and other systems with the larger corporation, the government, customers, vendors, etc. They may not personally do all the work involved, but they see that the alignment is in place.


Mid level leaders see systems are aligned within their departments and between their departments and other ones. Processing of purchase requisitions, submitting payroll information, preparing budgets, scheduling training classes, etc. all require interdepartmental alignment.


First level leaders see that systems within the work unit are aligned. They can involve team members in the process. The leader only needs to see that alignment exists. Systems such as materials flow, preventive maintenance, training, work assignments, shift changeovers, overtime and vacation coverage all need to be aligned.


Leaders also see that their respective groups are periodically renewed. In addition to incremental, continuous improvement, leaders make periodic audits across all aspects of their units to see what needs revised. They determine who should help conduct the audit and analyze the information. Once that is done, they establish mechanisms for taking renewing actions.


Top level managers renew organization wide systems, organizational structure, and the organization's vision. They enlist others in this process.


Mid level leaders renew organization-wide procedures, leader and team development techniques.


First level leaders renew work teams' technical and social skills and work processes.





The first level leader role gets special attention in self-directed work systems. It occupies a position of critical importance to the success of the organization. It is often filled by persons whose jobs will see the greatest amount of change and who may have been least prepared for it.


First level leadership is handled in a variety of ways.

  1. Maintain an exempt "supervisor" position and simply change the title to a more participative sounding one like "team leader." Some stop at this point and accept this guise as self-direction. Others change the duties of the role.
  2. Create "team coordinator" positions within the team itself. A single team member becomes the leader and stays in the role permanently. This position carries somewhat less weight than the exempt leader who is outside the team.
  3. Create a team coordinator position within the team and then encourage team members to rotate through it.
  4. Split the duties of a team coordinator into approximately five main responsibilities and have separate team members carry out each responsibility. This is referred to as the "STAR" concept.

We'll illustrate the star concept here. It will show many of the responsibilities which make up the team leader role. Each organization needs to decide for itself if it wants one person to take on all the responsibilities and if it wants people to rotate through the role. The star concept can be used with or without an exempt "leader" position.


When team members take on star point responsibilities they become the team's knowledgeable resource on that topic. They represent the team at safety committees, daily planning meetings, initial applicant screening, etc. The team may be the decision making body, the person "on point" leads the team for issues related to their point. When members move off the star point and on to another point or off the star altogether, they must train their successors and bring them up to speed.


The complexity of the organization, the number of team members, and the capability of the team as a whole can all affect how often rotation occurs.






  • Overall direction
  • Information resource
  • Linking & coordinating
  • Challenge of performance



  • Coordinate activities with other teams
  • Monitor performance
  • Plan, schedule overtime
  • Assign work within the team
  • Solve production problems
  • Improve work processes
  • Communicate with outside resources
  • Plan and schedule materials flow
  • Quality testing
  • Process checking and SPC analysis
  • Computer networking



  • Prepare budget input
  • Compare expenditures to budget and determine cause of variances
  • Report variances, causes, and corrective actions
  • Establish team objectives

Human Resources

  • Establish training needs
  • Plan and schedule training
  • Conduct new member orientation
  • Explain decisions to team members
  • Manage assignments to broaden team members' skill mix and flexibility
  • Structure work and document skill requirements
  • Do staffing planning
  • Screen and interview candidates
  • Deal with performance issues
  • Manage time cards and attendance
  • Schedule vacations and overtime
  • Assign, borrow, and lend team members
  • Administer union relations



  • Carry out safety inspections
  • Train team members in safe practices
  • Write incident reports
  • Carry out basic and preventive maintenance
  • Assist maintenance in equipment repair
  • Document downtime performance
  • Manage downtime schedules
  • Assist with new equipment installation
  • Improve operations layout

Special thanks to James Rollo for permission to use this material. Adapted from Mgt's Role in the Self-Directed Workforce, AQP, 1992.





A final note about roles and behaviors is in order. Are good leaders in self-directed organizations really any different than good supervisors and managers in traditional organizations? The answer is -- probably not a lot. Klein and Posey studied two groups of supervisors -- one in a participative plant and one in a traditional sister plant.* They found more recognizable differences between stronger and weaker supervisors in each system than between the systems. The qualities of good supervisors were:

  1. Deliver what they promise -- this gives them personal credibility.
  2. Understand team development and can apply it in practice.
  3. Willingly share their knowledge with team members.
  4. Share power and turn decision making into learning opportunities.
  5. View the increased ambiguity of participation as a challenge, not a frustration.
  6. Take control in a crisis.
  7. Have a personal commitment to teamwork and participation.
  8. Possess and share a broader view of the organization and its goals.

Effective supervisors were involved more in the roles of their leaders and assisted with plant-wide task forces. The growing abilities of their work groups made this time available to them. They saw that problems were solved, but did not see this as a task they had to do personally. In general, supervisors in the participative plant focused more on people and less on production.


Similar conclusions could probably be made about higher levels of leadership, although less research exists on this point. It is reasonable to conclude that good leaders are good leaders -- period. They adapt to their environments and shape the environments to be more participative and productive. Self-directed systems may be more likely to expose the weaknesses of leaders. Weak leaders may not be able to hide ineffective behaviors as easily and teams may not tolerate them as long. The strong leaders will become stronger and the weak leaders will improve or leave leadership roles.


Leadership in self-directed organizations is not for the faint-hearted.


* "Good supervisors are good supervisors -- anywhere," Janice Klein and Pamela Posey, Harvard Business Review, Nov.- Dec., 1986, pp. 125 - 128.




Journey to Excellence Seminar | Team Leadership Seminar | Effective Teams Seminar


The Business Center
120 Westview Lane
Oak Ridge, TN  37830


Back to Material Excerpts