Having an opportunity to speak with a few trainers about their work with sea lions I observed some useful parallels between their work with animals and the work leaders in a Lean enterprise must undertake. These observations can be summarized in two lessons.
Lesson One: Establish a relationship first. When trainers first begin to work with a new sea lion they spend much of their time simply feeding the animal. This allows the sea lion to start to familiarize itself with the trainer, and for the trainer to observe animal and learn its personality. All sea lions are different, so how much so must this be for humans. You don’t necessarily have to take the people you lead out to lunch, though not a bad idea, but before you can effectively lead them take time to get to know them on an individual level. This is the way to start to build trust.
Lesson Two: Always encourage and never force. While trainers use rewards to encourage commitment to wanted behaviors, for performances as well as to gain the animal’s cooperation when managing its health, sea lions and other animals are not forced into behaviors. As the trainer explained, forcing animals to take unwanted actions often results in aggression at some point. Again, what is true of animals is more so for humans, though human aggression is often passive in nature so as to avoid punishment. A leader needs to create an environment that cultivates a mood of ambition with clear norms describing how shared behaviors benefit all members of a team. This is the way to start to build commitment.
The people in your enterprise are not animals, and deserve even more care and development than trainers provide to animals. Remember that your leadership not only develops them to better undertake their current tasks and assignments. It also cultivates their current or future leadership of others in the enterprise, extending your influence far beyond the immediate impact you can observe. Building trust and commitment requires significant effort, and given that the principles are simple enough for a sea lion to understand there is little excuse not to put forth that effort.