Are leaders born or are they made? The Toyota example

We often wonder if leadership is an innate characteristic or a learned behaviour. The answer can not be unambiguous: Leadership is a mix of aptitudes and skills.

Some people completely lack the aspiration to become a leader, but for others this is an innate ability.

In line with these principles, the first step in Toyota’s leadership development is to identify those who have the potential to become leaders. The quality that Toyota look for in recognising a potential leader is a desire, even a passion, for self-improvement; only those who show this desire and the ability to improve themselves are promoted to the next level of leadership.

Toyota provides extraordinary opportunities for individuals who show this inner desire to develop their talents by deliberately creating situations that challenge and teach people to bring out their best and therefore create leaders on a daily basis.

Leaders, in fact, must learn to be leaders through training that provides them with all the skills and tools they need for both personal development and the development of the teams that they lead.

But what are the most important skills for leadership at Toyota?

  • The ability to understand the operational overview of how their organisation works, without constraints and preconceptions;
  • Active listening to what people really say;
  • The ability to think systematically;
  • An understanding of the strengths and real weaknesses of each team member;
  • The ability to clearly define the problems and identify the original cause;
  • An ability to plan;
  • Creatively identify countermeasures to root causes;
  • The ability to transform plans into concrete actions, assigning clear responsibilities;
  • The ability to take the time and the energy to thoroughly consider and identify further opportunities for improvement;
  • The skill to motivate and persuade people who are part of the organisation towards common objectives (even if they do not have direct authority over them);
  • The ability to teach all this to others.

List from: “Toyota Way for Lean Leadership” (Hoepli, 2015)

Improvement has its roots in learning

Leadership, therefore, is based on skills, but companies often expect that people can learn to become leaders after a brief training course. The assumption is that if the leaders are able to intellectually grasp the concepts while they are undergoing training, their actions will reflect what they have understood. Unfortunately, there is often no direct connection between a person’s conceptual understanding of something and their actions.

Toyota’s centre of learning is based on a proper cycle in which the student evolves along three levels, with the instructor’s involvement being reduced step by step.

This is the so-called Shu Ha Ri, which you can see in the following video extracted from the Executive Master in Lean Lifestyle®.

The improvement of skills and growth, therefore, can not be forcibly prescribed. It is important for leaders and companies to develop a sense of self-awareness of improvement

Today the only competitive advantage for individuals and companies is not technology or talent, but the ability to learn quicker than others. Individuals and companies that learn quicker than others go further, go faster, are less stressed and get better results.


Article by:

Luciano Attolico

CEO of Lenovys

Luciano is among the leading experts of Lean Thinking, Lean Lifestyle, Performance Improvement, Lean Lifestyle®   and Impact Innovation in Europe. His professional philosophy has people at its heart, leading them to search for methods that can ensure better results with less effort and greater well-being.

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