The 3 defining traits of Blue Ocean leaders

The 3 defining traits of Blue Ocean leaders

Blue Ocean Leadership is an innovative take on leadership developed by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgane out of their Blue Ocean concept, which was shared with the public in 2005 in their book Blue Ocean Strategy and has proved a huge success. According to the two scholars Blue Ocean leaders are those managers who make a high impact – who actually manage to draw out the best in employees. They are, in other words, those executives who not only recognize the latent talent and potential energy in those they lead, but also effectively guide them into living it out.

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Blue Ocean Leadership is an innovative take on leadership developed by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgane out of their Blue Ocean concept, which was shared with the public in 2005 in their book Blue Ocean Strategy and has proved a huge success. According to the two scholars Blue Ocean leaders are those managers who make a high impact – who actually manage to draw out the best in employees. They are, in other words, those executives who not only recognize the latent talent and potential energy in those they lead, but also effectively guide them into living it out.

Kim and Mauborgane have identified the following three traits as defining Blue Ocean leaders:

  1. They focus on acts and activities
  2. They act in close accordance with market realities
  3. They disseminate leadership across all management levels

We’ll discuss each of these traits in more detail below, but first let’s define the key concept here: Blue Oceans.

What is a Blue Ocean?

Blue Ocean is an idea and term developed by Kim and Mauborgane to represent a unique market space that you develop, for yourself, and so has no competitors.

They compare Blue Oceans to Red Oceans, the existing and known market spaces of various industries which each have defined and accepted practices and boundaries. Here everyone is competing for a portion of the same water and so competition is fierce. This leads to bloody encounters, turning the water red.

A Blue Ocean by contrast is a new, deep ocean entered into by companies and entrepreneurs who create new markets, coming up with products or services not previously in existence. When you create new oceans of market space, there is no competition, and the rules have yet to be established. In these spaces companies can flourish, enjoying the space and potential of a deep blue ocean.

Blue Ocean leadership

The three most important traits of the Blue Ocean leader are:

A focus on acts and activities

Kim and Mauborgane say that traditional leadership models focus on engendering attitude and value changes in followers. They argue that such changes can take years upon years to occur, if even then. Pushing for attitude and value changes moreover make any measurement of success very hard to attain, as they are qualitative goals. Blue Ocean leadership focuses on changing actions – a measurable gauge.

Kim and Mauborgane argue that “any individual can change, given the right feedback and guidance.” And at the end of the day it is changed actions that will improve a company’s business results.

Acting in close accordance with market realities

The authors say conventional leadership strategies are too generic, dispersed across industries without due thought to specific market realities such as what customers of that particular brand want.

The Blue Ocean leader however asks his or her followers – those people who face market realities in the course of their work – for input as to what leadership skills and actions are needed from them to help the latter achieve their KPIs and ambitions. They argue that “when people are engaged in defining the leadership practices that will enable them to thrive, and those practices are connected to the market realities against which they need to perform, they’re highly motivated to create the best possible profile for leaders and to make the new solutions work.”

Moreover when workers buy into the leadership model being used in their organization the transition phase is speedier and less costly.

Disseminating leadership across all management levels

Another key aspect of Blue Ocean leadership is the creation of good leaders at all levels of a corporation. Too often the focus is placed solely on the developing the leadership skills and potential of senior executives, but middle and frontline managers often have closer contact with the market and need to be empowered to lead in their divisions.

One executive interviewed by Kim and Mauborgane in their research explained it as follows: “The truth is that we, the top management, are not in the field to fully appreciate the middle and frontline actions. We need effective leaders at every level to maximize corporate performance.”

Blue Ocean leadership is therefore aimed at three different types of leader: senior, middle and frontline. The authors further write that “It calls for profiles for leaders that are tailored to the very different tasks, degrees of power, and environments you find at each level. Extending leadership capabilities deep into the front line unleashes the latent talent and drive of a critical mass of employees, and creating strong distributed leadership significantly enhances performance across the organization.”

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