Make a Google search for images of ‘leadership’ and see what the word still implies: there’s one person at the front of the spearhead, at the top of the triangle; one leader fixing the direction and pulling the rest along with them. It’s an idea that been embedded into our thinking of managers since the 1980s - and I should also say, instilled over the years by business schools - as the ideal to aim for.
In the old world of supply chains, where change was slow, when products and patterns in demand were fairly predictable and stable, it was simple. The traditional command and control mode of leadership was clear and effective. In the VUCA context of global markets in general (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), and with the effects of digitisation on supply chains in particular, it’s just no longer the right approach for leaders - at least not by itself. Managers need to be looking at equipping themselves to have a toolkit, and look beyond the pervasive and monolithic example of the ‘good leader’.
When we talked to supply chain leaders last year, the most challenging barriers to success were found to be around leadership and dealing with the human dynamics. Number one was “a lack of resources”, second the “overload of change”, third “too many conflicting priorities”, followed by “overambitious timelines”. “Perceived risks of change” and “fear if change” were in there too. The findings raise fundamental questions over leadership styles and whether they’re fit for purpose.
Mix and match
There are three essential models of leadership: command and control, consensus and collaboration. It’s not so simple as saying the first is old-fashioned and bad and we all need to just move to collaboration. All models work well in some contexts and poorly in others.
So command and control is good for getting results against a plan, where a hierarchy defined; it works poorly in larger organisations, where innovation is a priority. Consensus, which works via a small group and matrix across an organisation, has been shown to be useful for smaller organisations, but less good when speed is needed. (The recent machinations in Parliament to find a consensus over Brexit has been an interesting demonstration of this principle in action). Collaborative is when leadership activities are dispersed across a whole network, with roles for all levels and locations as well as external stakeholders - something that works well for operations including diverse groups and players, and for introducing innovation.
The ‘get rights’
Our research with supply chain leaders has led to a list of ‘get rights’ - what companies need to do to stand the highest chance of success with their strategic supply chain initiatives. These include making sure the supply chain is paid attention to as an end-to-end value chain, a whole ecosystem; the realisation and acceptance among leaders of the need for their personal contribution towards achieving change goals; continuously adapting strategy to changing circumstances; and, not dropping the ball during the implementation of change in terms of service, continuing to generate short-term wins, delivering benefits and building credibility.
What’s obvious from this is that one leader, using one style of leadership is going to struggle with the ‘get rights’. The best supply chain leaders will find ways to use different forms of leadership at the right time, to share leadership roles with others across the operation and the supply chain itself; a bi-modal approach, so knowing when to focus on predictability (areas like efficiency and cost reduction, managing predictable swings and inventory fluctuations, risk mitigation and prevention), and focus on exploration (speed, and strategies for solving the unexpected or adapting to new technologies).
That’s not as simple as it sounds. Supply chain leaders need to learn to manage both modes simultaneously, and that will involve having the self-awareness and skills to give up on being the single point of the spearhead, and the strength and courage to empower others.
Blog produced by: Richard Wilding OBE, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy and Programme Director of the Supply Chain Management Programme, Cranfield School of Management.