The Real Job of Leadership


In today’s world of rapid advancements in technology, some of the basic truths of business effectiveness and sustainability seem to have been forgotten as we embrace the belief that technology will solve everything. The current belief among business leaders is that the road to business success and productivity is paved with technology.

But a business is a complex system and technology is just one aspect of the system, along with company policies, work processes, quality control, testing, and of course people doing work.

It is my experience, after 35 years of working with and studying business performance, that the internal system (the rules and processes that govern the flow of work) has a much greater impact on human performance, human behaviour, and the culture of the organization than most people realize.

The brilliant management sage, W. Edwards Deming says it much better:

The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or service if only our production workers would do their jobs in the way that they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system, and the system belongs to the management.

The system determines the culture, and leadership establishes the system.

The Real Role of Leadership

Much attention over the past several decades has focused on the role of leaders in motivating people, providing a compelling vision, leading and role modeling values, and Management by Walking Around.  All good stuff. But unless the system supports productive behaviours and attitudes, coaching, mentoring and motivating will lead to frustration rather than improvement.

The real job of leadership is to change the system (policies and work processes) to make it easier for people to deliver performance. The system determines the culture (how things are done around here), and leadership establishes the system.

Here’s an easy example. The executives of a retail company noticed that customer satisfaction scores were falling, so they called on HR to ramp up staff training. “Get people to focus more on customers” was the battle cry across the region.  Much money and time was spent on training, with absolutely no positive impact on customer satisfaction scores.

Stepping back to look at the entire company as a system of policies and work practices beyond just sales staff, we discovered the real driver behind the falling customer satisfaction scores. At a certain time twice a day, the senior managers in charge of inventory and merchandising demanded that all people on the sales floor fill out the latest inventory templates and send them up to head office.  The buyers and merchandise heads needed to make buying decisions and the numbers were critical.

When we spoke with sales staff about the poor customer service scores they said that the time taken away from helping customers to do the inventory paperwork and reporting was a major issue. But in this company “system”, the merchandise function (buyers and senior merchandise executives) was seen as the most powerful part of the company. The system was designed to satisfy the needs of the merchandising function, not the customer.

The leaders of the company determine the elements of the system, and they are the only ones who can change it.  That’s the real job of leadership.

Fortunately in this example the CEO and President got together, realized the negative impact the system of merchandising checks was having on sales and service, and with the support of the entire senior team developed an alternative set of processes that got merchandising its requirements while also freeing up more time for sales staff to interact with customers.


Change the system, change the culture!

And only the leaders can change the system, if they have the courage.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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