Leading Issue:
Leadership and Certainty

The importance of kaizen (改善) in leadership


Mark Lukens’ article How Certainty Is Destroying Your Leadership published today (18 Feb) in Fast Company reminds us that “rigid certainty” in leadership is an outdated and ineffectual behavior to have in a knowledge-based economy. As Lukens indicates, it leads to a culture of inflexibility and collusion and, to build on Lukens´ point, it also creates an unhealthy parent-child dynamic in the workplace and can suppress creativity and innovation. In short, if you want to put your team on the fast-track to disengagement, position yourself as the custodian of truth, knowledge and ideas.

Great leaders have what Japanese philosophy terms kaizen (改善) meaning improvement (often linked to continuous improvement). They have the desire and mindset to learn new things and openly welcome different points of view. As Noel Tichy and others argue, great leaders never stop learning, they positively thrive on self-renewal and see mistakes in themselves and others as learning opportunities.

Noel Burch first explored this behavioural phenomenon in The Conscious Competence Learning Model (1970s) and although nearly 40 years old is still relevant for helping modern leaders to map out their behaviour and shift from a closed (‘knower’) to an open (‘learner’) mindset to use Fred Kaufman´s terminology employed in Conscious Business and neatly summarised in a recent Linkedin posting. The Conscious Competence Learning Model is a simple and effective tool that helps leaders reframe from knower to learner (something absent in Lukens´ analysis).

Let´s briefly remind ourselves of the theory. When it comes to the mindset of learning, Burch identifies four stages ranging from ignorance to mastery:


1. Unconscious Incompetence
“I don’t know what I don’t know!”
These learners have blind spots (something that Mark Lukens alluded to in his article) – they are simply unaware that they don’t know something. The challenge for this type of learner is to discover these blind spots and levels of ignorance.

2. Conscious Incomptence
“I know that I don’t know”
Learners at this stage are aware of their blindspots and levels of ignorance. They have two fundamental choices: to cultivate a learning mindset or remain in ignorance. The challenge for this type of learner is to become motivated to cultivate a learning mindset.

3. Conscious Competence
“I know that I know”
This is the learning zone. At this stage learners are self-consciously and actively engaged in learning and self-improvement. The challenge for this type of learner is to stay within a learning mindset.

4. Unconscious Competence
“I know something so well that I don´t even have to think about it”
This type of learner is an expert. The problem arises when the expert becomes a ‘know it all’ and possess the “rigid certainty” that Lukens describes. Their expertise and status can shut them off to the possibility of continuous learning. The challenge for this type of learner is to acknowledge that being an expert is as limiting as somebody in an unconscious incompetence mindset – you can set yourself back to zero if you think you are beyond learning.

Mark Lukens raises an important leadership issue – leaders who are insecure, status driven, and threatened by different points of view are increasingly failing in the modern knowledge-based economy and their know-it-all attitude is contributing to employee disengagement that reinforces their need to control. Leaders need to step out of this reinforcing loop by adopting a leader-as-learner and not a leader-as-expert mindset.

Ric Kelly PhD.