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The Conscientious Leader's Dilemma – A Systemic Perspective

Updated: Jan 9

Do you dream of being able to give your stakeholders exactly what they want, precisely when they need it, and to be surrounded by happy, engaged employees who willingly contribute their best every day? But instead, do you often wake up to dissatisfied stakeholders who think you wear the "no" hat too often, and exhausted employees who can't wait to get out of the office?

If so, you may be familiar with "the conscientious leader's dilemma," as described in the first chapter of a new book by advocate of the Kanban approach to flow-based management, David J. Anderson.

"Stop starting, start finishing": Easier said than done

David has helped us understand the importance of keeping work queues low if we want to ensure a smooth flow from identifying a need to fulfilling it. He has particularly contributed to adapting flow principles from the production of physical products to industries where we mostly deal with intangible work.

His basic recommendation is simple enough: Put a limit on how much work you have in progress so that new work items don't have to wait too long for old work items to be completed. Paradoxically, this may mean that, for a while, we have to say "no" more often to new requests: "Stop starting, start finishing!"

This might sound like a suicide mission if you're already in the shoes of a conscientious leader. So, what do we do when it's not easy to throttle the influx?

Place the mechanism in the system

As my colleague Pia recently said: "We need to place the mechanism in the system and not in the individual conscientious leader's responsibility portfolio." This is especially important because the leadership actions that promote flow can feel deeply counterintuitive for many of us. Historically, our ancestors could only survive winter by gathering supplies in the summer, so it feels wrong to reduce our "work-in-progress" inventory; and we initiate new tasks to keep ourselves busy, even though it might be better to help a colleague finish something else.

Individual motivation and will power are therefore too unsteady for us to rely on. Don't ask how you alone can find the strength and resilience not to fall back into unproductive behaviours the next time things get tough. Instead, ask how you and your leadership colleagues can create frameworks that allow you to support each other in doing the right thing, even when the pressure is on.

Avoid "rolling out"

Especially when we, as leaders, aim to create better conditions for flow. Because this will likely require change, and in this context, we often see leaders treating others as passive recipients of change, focusing on overcoming "resistance." Often, this involves predominantly using one-way communication and persuasion. (Of course, this doesn't apply to you; I know that!)

But perhaps others don't resist change itself as much as being made the object of change? Perhaps "resistance" is more about leaders underestimating the need for mutual meaning-making about the new, and forgetting to show sufficient recognition for each group's unique context? Perhaps creating a more flow-efficient organization is too complex a challenge for us to simply "roll out" an apparently correct "solution"?

Start with relationships, appreciation, and involvement

At least, that's my experience. From a systemic perspective, I therefore suggest instead considering change as something:

  • We invite voluntary co-creation of

  • With respectful consultation about

  • With openness to contributions of solutions to

  • With the opportunity for local adaptation, as long as the right goals are achieved, and;

  • Implemented through a series of trial actions with systematic learning and follow-up.

If you haven't already, I would suggest that you and your leadership colleagues consider this view and hold onto it as a framework for your work on improving flow management. So that you can remain conscientious leaders but collectively create conditions to move away from the dilemma.

Ulrik H. Gade

Follow me on LinkedIn - questions and comments are very welcome Want to know more? Check out our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership.


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