The Leader’s Handbook – About a Book

Today we are doing something a little bit different and instead of exploring my next planned topic, I will be reviewing – or enthusiastically regurgitating the theories from – a book I have just finished reading. Given that my next planned topic was on process mapping, one of my favourite things, it just shows how good the book is. So here we will be talking about Peter R. Scholtes’ The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done. I highly recommend it!

I first heard of this book through a reference in the context of – really, the only way you can be sure that any activity or culture within an organisation will be undertaken or changed is if you embed it into the processes and systems of an organisation. Heck yes, I said to myself! That’s what I’ve been banging on about for the last year, but without any data, just logic and experience. To hear that this book existed and was written by an expert in management who has continued to build on Dr Deming’s theories (see my previous post on Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge) got me really excited. So I ordered the book, received it, got caught up in the first half, got side-tracked by Christmas, and then have finally finished the second half in an impassioned rush.

So this book…. It was published in the late 1990s but I think it is as relevant today as it would have been back then. Maybe more so. Or maybe it depends on what industry you are in and how much its leaders have chosen to base their practice on best practice rather than stay with the tried and tested. Nevertheless, it builds on a tradition of quality management in Japanese manufacturing and extends Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge into a philosophy of leadership for anyone in any line of work. Obviously those at the top of any organisation will have more of an immediate impact if they choose to adopt this philosophy and embed it into the organisation’s day to day business, but as Scholtes says:

“Leadership is the presence and spirit of the individual who leads and the relationship created with those who are led… Leadership is an art, an inner journey, a network of relationships, a mastery of methods, and much, much more. And because we cannot expect any single heroic individual to possess all these traits, leadership, ultimately, must be a system.” (page 372)

How is that for motivating?

From my understanding, the purpose of the Leader’s Handbook is to provide not only a toolset and philosophy for the leadership required to withstand the challenges and optimise on the opportunities for organisations in the 21st century, but also to present a vision of what the organisations they lead could look like. Underpinning both these concepts is ‘systems thinking’ – the ability to view the happenings within any organisation or organisational unit objectively and mechanistically, recognising the flow of work within and even external to it as a series of steps that interrelate with other work flows, human characteristics and behaviours, internal and external customer-supplier relationships and hierarchical layers.

I must admit that I have a bad habit of using the term ‘systems thinking’ interchangeably with cold, hard ‘logic’, as I think it is what you have to do to be truly rational (or as truly rational as a human can get) in your thinking. You have to take a step back and see why and how things function, rather than generalising, directing blame unnecessarily and incorrectly, and generally getting worked up about things that in the big picture have very little significance. This may not be wrong, but I will admit that using the terms of ‘logic’ and ‘systems thinking’ interchangeably can certainly confuse the issue.

Systems thinking at one of the highest levels is what brought Deming to develop his famous ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ which is what forms the backbone of this book. It also brought Scholtes to his most simple view of an organisation, which is shown in the below diagram.

People to Purpose - Scholtes

I love this diagram (the concept of it anyway – the diagram on page 82 of Scholtes’ book is better than the picture I have put together here)! It is what we all know, implicitly, but so often overlook in the busyness and detail installed in our organisations. At their simplest level, organisations are made up of just three things: people, processes and systems, and purpose.

And here is the crux of it. Whether you acknowledge it or not, every organisation will have processes and systems that people use to deliver outputs. If you have an ambiguous purpose, then the processes and systems are unlikely to be ineffective, or if they are effective it will be by fluke. At the same time, if those processes and systems themselves are rubbish, it will make it very difficult for the purpose to be met. And at the end of the day, without people you will not have a workforce to deliver work, but without appropriate processes, systems or purpose the workforce you do have will understandably struggle to deliver what is required of them. It really makes you shift paradigm when you realise that regardless of how good their people are, organisations will only be successful if their purpose is clear and their systems and processes are fit for purpose. Sure, one might say that outstandingly wonderful staff will put in place the right systems and processes. However that needs to be enough staff with influence saying, yes we need these processes and systems, this is what they will be and yes we all will stick to them.

And this is therefore what the book focuses on. The fact that it is the responsibility of leaders, ideally those people at the head of an organisation, to ensure the right purpose, processes and systems are in place and clearly articulated. Because – as the book also lays out – clear purpose, processes and systems mean that employees can actually and effectively deliver what they are employed to do without being demotivated by uncertainty or underutilisation.

In order to support this new leadership style being adopted, this book itself presents a system of leadership, based on systems thinking but made up of the six “New Leadership Competencies” coming out of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. These are taken directly from page 21 of the text:
1. “The ability to think in terms of systems and knowing how to lead systems.”
2. “The ability to understand the variability of work in planning and problem solving.”
3. “Understanding how we learn, develop, and improve, and leading true learning and improvement.”
4. “Understanding people and why they behave as they do.”
5. “Understanding the interdependence and interaction between systems, variation, learning, and human behaviour. Knowing how each affects the others.”
6. “Giving vision, meaning, direction, and focus to the organization.”

To coach you through developing each of these competencies, this book is packed full of various strategies that by themselves will probably shift you up a notch as a leader, and together could revolutionise the organisation you work in. These strategies are broad ranging, but some examples include how to:
• define purpose, direction and core business activities;
• document, standardise and/or streamline processes;
• define metrics for, measure / monitor and track improvement;
• be a good listener, ask questions and generally support the growth of staff;
• build a culture of continuous improvement and collaboration rather than blame – starting with ditching conventional performance appraisals; and
• strategise about and create change.

This book really does pull together and substantiate a whole new framework for how an organisation functions and it practises what it preaches. The purpose, processes and system for establishing this new paradigm are made clear and the complex threads of organisational management are threaded neatly throughout the book like a carpet on a weaving loom. It is refreshing in its clarity and inspiring in its vision. The often-humorous tips, quotes and case studies throughout it make reading enjoyable and I just wish that I could get the time to read the whole book through again right now.

In fact, from my perspective the only thing that is missing seems to be a simple framework and toolset for how this systems thinking, including the purpose, processes, systems and monitoring can be documented within an organisation. If you were to make all the managers and above in your organisation read and gradually become the type of leader envisioned by Scholtes then I am sure you would create an organisation for you and everyone in it to be proud of – although, as he himself writes, this sort of cultural change will take at least 3 years to be properly realised, and continuous improvement must be ongoing beyond that point. However it is HARD WORK to completely rewire the way an organisation operates and I believe that to have a documentation framework all ready for population, as painfully bureaucratic as it sounds, could make things so much easier and clearer at the beginning of the reform project.

But of course I would say that – after all that is the purpose of this blog! To explore and improve a documentation framework, a written business model, that provides a vision, and a vehicle for getting to, what under the bonnet a healthy organisation looks like. To develop a model for what – at the highest level – your organisation’s system looks like, and managing – at the more detailed levels –how the internal systems and processes operate and interact.

What do you think?

Do you see much systems thinking underway in your organisation? And how much of this theory do you think could be applied within government?


Scholtes, Peter R. 1998, The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done, McGraw-Hill, United States.

What do you think?