Sailing the Ocean Blue – S14.5

In a recent Harvard Business Review article (May 2014), Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe the concept of blue ocean leadership. Before saying anything about the theory, allow me to interpret the metaphor first. The concept of ocean implies vastness and unrealized possibility, as in the old saying, usually invoked when the girl or guy that you are smitten with is not interested in you, that there are lots of fish in the sea. The idea of blue suggests a pristine environment filled with optimism and opportunity, rather than the real sea, which is over-fished, and full of toxins and debris. This is very much a Theory Y view of humanity, in which a vast population of willing and able individuals is just waiting to be called upon. It is also a tremendously naive view of organizational ecology, in which politics and personal desire, whether for good or evil, play little or no part.

Notwithstanding its name, the theory is based on a marketing approach to leadership, where the objective (the task of leadership) is to convert non-customers into customers. The authors claim that their key insight is that leadership should be thought of as a service that members of an organization either do or do not buy into.

In practice, the authors suggest that the first step is to identify how customers are currently experiencing leadership. What activities, in their view, are receiving too much time and effort, and which ones too little? This is leadership “as is.” The objective is then to eliminate some behaviors, decrease the emphasis on some, increase the emphasis on some others, and create some new ones. This realignment will represent leadership “to be.” Following implementation, managers and employees will be less stressed, the organization will be more productive, and conflict will be minimized. While that may be the case in the short run, I cannot see it lasting. It goes contrary to human nature, and it creates an environment in which the energy that keeps the organization going will slowly but surely dissipate. Statisticians might refer to this as regression to the mean; others might think of it as the refuge of mediocrity. I have to say that I think it’s nonsense; more blue sky, than blue ocean.


About Robert A. Campbell, PhD

Robert A. Campbell, PhD, teaches courses in change management, leadership, and organizational behavior, as part of the MBA program in community economic development, for the Shannon School of Business at Cape Breton University.
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31 Responses to Sailing the Ocean Blue – S14.5

  1. Norm Hubbert says:

    At Maple Leaf Foods (MLF), Michael McCain often talked about “servant leadership”. It appears that there are some elements of this concept in the Sailing the Ocean Blue article. The approach at MLF encouraged management to provide leadership by serving the staff. The goal of a leader is to remove obstacles for employees to do the best work possible. This approach was supported by a robust performance management and individualized development plan for all employees. In effect, we had individualized leadership styles for each employee based upon agreed upon deliverables and expectations. There can be some tailoring of leadership approach to each employee however there are some things that are non-negotiable. We would not jeopardize our integrity or the integrity of the organization and the corporate values (common set of expectations) had to be maintained. It is not efficient or effective to change behaviours for each employee in entirety but where groups of employees are aligned to a need for a different approach it could be considered. I agree with Dr Campbell Esquire’s assessment that this approach is not sustainable in the long-run without huge organizational commitment and processes to ensure the approach remains in control.

    • Shan Sun (Sunshine) says:

      ” Servant leadership” is pretty much same with people- oriented approach, which support employees with what they need to enable them do better performance. It is delight to imagine that I may work better if there was such kind of leadership in my company. Glad to see Norm mentioned that we do need individualized leadership styles based on different expectations but on the other hand, integrity and some values have to be maintained. How to balance employee’s preference and organizational culture as a whole, this is a tough question for leaders.  

      • Amna says:

        I enjoyed reading Norm comment and i agree that we should not put much responsibility to lower-level of workers in an organization. First of all, most of them lack responsibility, required experience and don’t have mature thinking pattern. Servant leadership is certainly significant and employees are independent. But I argue that leadership should be a slow process embedded from leaders of the organization to lower-level of workers, so workers don’t feel overwhelmed and are slowly able to give directions. This is certainly not a one-day thing but a long-term process.

      • Hope says:

        I can appreciate what you’re saying Amna (sorry, there was no reply on your post), but I disagree with your assessment of lower-level workers. Some of the smartest, most valuable people in an organization work at lower levels. Take secretaries. They are incredibly valuable, and most large organizations would fall apart without them. Executives are replaceable, secretaries are much, much, harder to replace.

        I know secretaries with bachelor degrees, technical diplomas, some who have been doing similar jobs for 40 years, who are incredibly smart and capable and seen as leaders in a variety of organizations because of their important organizational skills, institutional knowledge (they know where all the bodies are buried), ability to orient and coach others, and abilities to manage crises and high-stress situations well. To paint all lower-level employees with the same brush is unfair, and does a disservice to everyone.

    • Lucy DI says:

      Servant leadership is an interesting example. It makes me think of the leader’s job is not to command and require employees to do things, but to serve others, including customers and employees. Managers obligation to allow employees to play their own advantages. But at the same time, the staff as a whole, we are open to treat them, so much attention to every employee’s self-innovation, and sometimes impact the company’s overall impact on institutional aspects. So I agree with Norm’s point of view.

  2. Shan Sun (Sunshine) says:

    Blue Ocean Leadership is using the framework to find new potentials, which originates from Blue Ocean Strategy. I did not think I agree with theory but the point that the leadership can be thought as a market service or products and employees as the customers who have choices “buy or not-buy” is very attractive. However, I am wondering that if leadership becomes a product, how    it can be bought or enjoyed by every customer segment. Leadership cannot or I should say is difficult to reach every employee, like customers in real market, different, emotional, unevenly gifted, creative and picky. Some people may like and some people do not. Moreover, if the leaders, like the leadership producers, need to please employees instead of influencing them or changing them, leaders will become passive. That is not a good thing.

     I read the rest of this article. And I doubt that lack of leadership is the main cause of lower productivity among employees. I believe there are some people do not work efficiently, but there are other reasons I think matters more than leadership, for example not good payment, working environment and not appropriate incentives.

    As to blue ocean and red ocean, like all other things, easy to talk, hard to tell. In reality, most of us may agree that we need to create more demands and exploit new markets. The question is I do not know wether we are in red sea or in blue sea.  

    • Kathy Luo says:

      Yeah, I agree with leadership is not the only reason that cause low productivity. But the thing is good payment, working environment and appropriate incentives could be classify to leadership in some theories. If the problems were resulted from current leadership, even come from the employees themselves, it needs to be fixed by defining the problems accurately or to explore the “blue ocean” of leadership to find out new method get it done.

    • Saud Alhowaish says:

      I totally agree with Shan Sun that it is difficult to reach the demand of every employee. Because every employees have their own perspectives, so that if the leader has to change their actions to satisfy their subordinates, it may be hard to motivate all people and more harder to align and control them.
      Moreover, I don’t think that leadership is a product or service which wait for customers(leaders) to decide that they will buy or not. But leadership status refers to create new things as well as find some stategies to motivate, influence and lead the follower.

    • Julia Yusuf says:

      I also have concern on marketing leadership as a product. Differently, my major concern is that people may forget the human centered characteristic of leadership if they over emphasize leadership as something that we can buy and sell. In addition, If leadership is a merchandize, it would be a vulnerable one since it will easily fade away as time passes. Finally, if leadership is something organizations can buy, then the gap between large and small business will become wider and wider. Large multinationals can buy all kinds of leadership, while a convenient store even cannot afford to buy one. If small businesses shrink because they cannot purchase leadership as large companies can. Then our CED project will face a great challenge. Then we are gonna need a course called “Leadership Purchasing”.

  3. Lucy DI says:

    I think the blue ocean leadership is a very good analogy in Leadership theory methods. The ocean is vast, chances are endless, just as business as the leader in its industry, has been perfect fight for a place, it is better to open the field of development and innovation. Of course, creating a new leader in the field of development needs accurately find the appropriate field, or to transform existing business. Identify and define customers in Leadership is essential. Like the example mentioned, we can not ask people who do not like us to comply with our views, but can not make them like us in a short time. So the core is, find themselves like us. While the leadership process, the content will be constantly changing leadership, the conflict is minimized. Advantage blue ocean theory is to give a thought leader in open space, so that leadership is not subject to limitations, thus changing the organization’s existing problems.

    • Sohaila A. says:

      I agree with Lucy here. I actually like this concept as I look at it from a different angle. An ocean full of chances, opportunities and new ways… maybe? Having a marketing side in leadership is very innovative. I personally don’t see a problem in creating new demand by converting non-customers to customers and converting disengaged employees to engaged ones. Leaders are not angels; it is okay to think ‘money’ for the success of their businesses. It a vision put forth and that is a faultless, new, and analytical behavioral approach to make it happen.

    • Little Deng says:

      If employees were customers, what should leaders do when customers don’ like their products and services? Option one, leaders ignore and give up marketing these customers. Then, words like major lay off come into my mind. Obviously, it is not a good option. Option two, leaders change products and services to fulfill customers’ needs. It seems to be a better idea. However, if leaders have a better vision in terms of long term development than other employees, why they have to change their services? So I prefer not to link leadership with marketing so that I don’t have to make a buy or not to buy choose.

  4. Peggy V. says:

    I can’t stop thinking about the “employee of the month” gimmick. Treating your employees like customers. Blue Ocean Leadership seems to be built on the premise that its the leaders’ job to create engaged employees. The employee then either buys in or does not buy in and its the leaders task to remove the barriers that cause disengagement. Leadership is a service or product that if bought into, a person will be a more effective employee. I simply can’t connect to the thought of my boss thinking “how am I going to get Peggy to buy in to my leadership today and if I do she will be a better employee”. Am I missing something here? It just sounds so insulting.

    • Hope says:

      I hear your concerns about employee engagement and the way it can be presented. It’s currently a huge issue in the provincial government, and lots of work is being done around it.

      Engagement is a two-way street. It is an alignment of values within an organization and depends on everyone being treated with trust and respect. There are a lot of things that can affect it, but leadership is a key determinant in whether or not employees are engaged. It’s not about doing things to engage employees, it’s about being someone employees trust and respect. Your actions need to align with their values. All of your actions, all of their values. To simplify, it’s a lot like being in a dragon boat. As a leader, you need to be aware of the team, their rhythm, who’s out of sync, and get everyone paddling together. This is much, much harder than it seems.

      Leaders who are unaware of their staff, who don’t know them well, who staff don’t trust are never going to get everyone paddling together, in fact, leaders who are disengaged from staff or try to lead from their office (doesn’t work!) will probably have a good amount of paddlers take their paddles out of the water and stop paddling or worse, drag their paddle to make it harder to get where you’re going.

      • Christine G says:

        Hope I agree with your comments, in response to our branch results on employee engagment we have initiated the development of an employee engagement strategy by presenting the results and having a discussion on what we need to do to address the issues. The first thing we (all staff, not management, not leadership) did was to identify the root causes for the lack of engagement. The survey measured the dissatifaction but it really gave no insights into root causes. We provided an opportunity to provide input annonamously on the problems identified, what they (all staff, management and leadership) felt were the root causes and any suggestions they had for addressing the problem. The exercise resulted in great feedback ( i.e. engagement in the process), the results were aggregated and de-identified by me (some played the name and shame game when they we asked not to) and I presented this back during all staff. The root cause for most issues was around communication – why decisions were made, why information was not communicated, what is our role in bigger health picture, whay do some teams get this and we get that. As the branchlead, I indicated that my role was the change sponsor, the responsability to ensure the change happened started and stopped with me and that this needed to be measured but I also indicated that we all had a responsability to make change happen. A commitee with representation across the branch vertically and horizontally, was initiated, volunteers only. Commitee work is done during work hours on a monthly basis, they have drafted the terms of reference and the deliverable ( an employee engagement strategy), measurement this year is a common performance objective from leadership, to management, to staff within the branch. The real measure will be the employee enagagement survey next spring. What I have observed over the last eight months is a change in momentum, people communicate more, new people are stepping up and looking for new opportunities. In a branch of 50+ I have also observed a core group of non participants, critics, naysayers and I think of them as ” the 15%”. My goal is to focus on the 85% who want to make change happen. Ideally, I would focus on “all” employees, but it is a two way street, everyone makes choices and everyone has some ownership in making things better. I am ok with this.

    • Dave says:

      No, I don’t think you’re missing anything. It’s almost as if it makes you an employee twice over. “Gimmick” is the word that came to mind for me as well. And “insulting” is a good word too.
      Do you feel there is a difference between “creating engaged employees” and “engaging employees”? I started to write that I felt it is a leader’s job to create engaged employees but then I stopped. That too sounded a little gimmicky.

  5. Amna says:

    It is an interesting concept for me to see that leadership can has marketing side. I never thought of that. I liked the blue ocean concept regarding leadership;however, I believe that when you put marketing aspect to leadership, it is not a ‘real’ leadership attitude but a bought concept by you leader to make his employees feel that he is the leader and giving you direction. Converting non-customers into customers is making you leave the real purpose of leadership behind, and it is not the original idea anymore. I agree that it can cause conflicts in the organization. As I see leadership is not about making customers but building a system in people that their efforts are valuable and contributing to a bigger cause. Employees are the root of any organization to be successful and tricking your into different versions of leadership may not work, at least not in long-term.

    • Peggy V. says:

      Amna, I really liked what you said. Marketing creates ways in which to draw the consumer into buying something that they didnt yet know they wanted. It is not authentic to the real situation. If influencing and inspiring staff can be achieved through a newly trained Ocean Blue Leadership course then I will have to buy some of that leadership… its a commodity for sale right??? I wonder how much leadership costs these days?

  6. Kathy Luo says:

    It is not a new phenomenon, but a new theory. In my opinion, blue ocean leadership which is used to better engage employees, release untapped talent and energy in organizations could hardly be applied without company’s blue ocean strategy. The external reform is kind of driven force of finding out the internal “blue ocean” and changing or updating it to fit the new situation. Many companies that are multinational or diversification can be the examples. If the company is taking action to enter a new market, the place and space which we have discussed before would also be changed, either going beyond or being expanded. So the explore of leadership under new circumstances is quite necessary and important.

    • meaghancc says:

      Kathy, I really agree with you. Without a clear vision and strategies to get there, leadership is hollow. So this theory, while interesting, needs to be more grounded in an organizational culture and give regard to what is needed to achieve the vision and goals. Divorcing these elements is difficult for me to wrap my head around.

  7. meaghancc says:

    Because I work in the ocean conservation sector, I have a visceral reaction to blue ocean leadership because there are many institutes and nonprofits who are trying to capture that inspirational, to them, vision. However, these organizations are often poor performers. That aside, blue ocean leadership just seems like the latest fad trying to find a way to roll up the hard work of leadership into something flashy to communicate (recently, I’ve heard things like lode-star leadership, north star leadership, etc along the lines of what color is your parachute). Without reading the article in detail, does leadership really need to be marketed? I don’t think so. I’d like to see the authors go a bit further along the lines of what we discussed in class yesterday—the readiness factor. That way, leadership can be seen as a 2-way street.

    • Norm Hubbert says:

      Well said Ocean Blue Californian! It really is a two way street. It is critical to have followers who are supporting leadership not actively trying to undermine efforts. If you can understand people’s motives, needs, drivers and behaviours… In many ways a leader needs to be a psychologist. We use an Influence -Idea grid in Six Sigma that starts with identifying key stakeholders. The needs and drivers of these individuals is determined then ideas are generated to influence them to be more positive to change or improvements. This in a way is the readiness factor you mention. If someone will not change then- “Change the people or change the people”. The person needs to change or you have to exit the person from the role.

  8. Hope says:

    You are your leadership (or lack thereof.) It does matter how people perceive you and how you lead, but I’m not sure that it’s a “service”. Changing yourself to better match what people expect of you if it’s outside of who you are will not last. Especially if you do not perceive the need to change and you’re just doing it to conform to organizational norms or to maintain your position of given authority.

    The idea of blue ocean leadership is a dream. There is nothing wrong with dreams, but you also have to acknowledge the reality of today and work within the situational context presented. It think the main reason I scoff at blue ocean leadership is because of the view of “unlimited potential”. The very fact that leaders are human (or at least, I hope they are…) means that they are limited.

    I’m reading a book called “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman which focuses on the fact that positive thinking is not a good thing when it comes to achieving goals. Optimism needs to be tempered by realism and pessimism. Refusing to address issues and challenges present in all organizations in favour of being positive and optimistic does a disservice to all the employees, stakeholders, and the organization itself. This is “ostrich leadership”, which in itself, isn’t really leadership at all.

    I think the overly optimistic view of things can actually be dangerous because it can lead people to deny other people’s negative experiences or dismiss relevant issues because they would create a negative environment. Opening your eyes, scanning the environment/context, identifying short, medium, and long-term pressures, and then tackling each with a “let’s roll up our sleeves, and dig in” attitude is much more effective. True leaders are the first ones to roll up their sleeves, grab a shovel and start moving manure.

  9. Dave says:

    If I’m the “customer”, I’d like to speak with the manager, please.
    I would hope that this type of thing doesn’t catch on, that they won’t develop “spray-on leadership” next. I’d also hope that leadership, although very hard to pin down from what we hear and discuss in class, is more of an organic thing than a gimmicky thing. I feel I would be more inclined to follow a leader who lead by example rather than followed a step by step process and reduced people to buzzwords. The Bennis quote about leadership and beauty is great. I know Blue Ocean is not leadership to me so what then is an example of organic leadership? I can’t say exactly but I know it when I see it.
    …..then again, be careful what you wish for: “Green Leaf Strategy: Organic Leadership”. Can it be far off?

    (“Green Leaf Strategy: Organic Leadership” copyright 2014 David Johnson)

  10. Saud Alhowaish says:

    Can Blue Ocean Leadership use in the reality? After reading this article about “Saling the Bule Ocean”, I still suspect that, Can we build the leadership by relying on the needs of followers and subordinates?
    It may be possible to make leadership profile by using the marketing approach “Blue Ocean”, that we consider the requires of customers(followers) and convince them to buy the products(encourage, motivate and inspire the follower to dedicate to their work). However, I believe that changing the acts or activities of leaders are not a proper way for motivating, inspiring and aligning people. Because every followers or subordinates have different objectives and expectations. Besides, the modern community has high competition, thus the leader should consider both follower and competitor, then setting the clear goal and direction to lead the achievement through the organization.
    Lastly, I think if leader has a good credit, trait of leadership and nice personality, so that followers will have confidence to work with their heart desire.

  11. Julia Yusuf says:

    In this article, for me the most attractive phrase may be “human nature” rather than “blue ocean.” I agree that the so-called blue ocean goes against the human nature. When some people consider leadership as a product that can be sold and bought, I think people begin to misunderstand the key of leadership, so it’s a failure. This failure is similar to the phenomenon that art and music are considered as merchandise. Then, people start to forget the nature of these “products”. Instead, people can only see things like sales of records, and incomes from advertisement. So here is my main concern, if people keep considering leadership as a piece of product, they may eventually forget that leadership is human centered. It’s possible that they can purchase a leadership service and pretend to have a leadership. But as time passes, the apparent leadership will fade away because they intrinsically don’t possess the skills.

  12. Sohaila A. says:

    I do not see the ‘fishy’ side in this concept. I’m looking at it in another positive way; an ocean of talent and resourceful energy. A leader displays enthusiasm, passion, and inspiration to get others to attain high levels of performance. He’s capable to get extraordinary performance from ordinary employees. When people value your leadership practices they get inspired and ‘buy’ your leadership, and this leads to a better outcome for everyone. I do agree with some of the comments here that it is not very ‘situational’ as how leadership is supposed to be; but we also should start considering that the best leadership style is the style that works, one that produces the better results for the business.

  13. Little Deng says:

    Chan Kim and Renee Maubougne may think that employees and managers will be less stress if they use leadership service, but I see the problem on the other way. I think they will become more stress and anxious. Some performance of leadership stick to the value of leaders. As we know, we may be able to influence others’ value in long term, but we can hardly change one’s value at once. The article said using leadership service can help organization realign leadership “to be”, but I think it actually forces leadership “pretend to be”. The world is changing fast, so as the content of leadership. Then, how long can leadership service users pretend to be leaders?

    • Xujun Huang (Lilian) says:

      Yeah. I agree with what Little, employees and managers when following the suggestion from leadership service, to some extend might have more pressure and stress, because when you quantifying something, you can see something very clearly suddenly, and the pressure might increase at the same time. Also, there might be a standard for you to compare when you finish a task. Maybe a vision, which is not in details might be helpful in stimulate staff’s conscious activity, because when you can’t see something so clear, you may feel happy about your self-achievement, since every step you make makes you closer to your vision.
      In addition, I not only concerned about the time which leadership may spent to crate a long-term value changing, I also worrying about how to see the quality of leadership service. How can we know how strong the leadership service is? Any measurable methods exist?

  14. Xujun Huang (Lilian) says:

    Although the concept of blue ocean leadership describe or put forward an idea of blue which stand for something good and fantastic, entirely different from the real tragedy world. Similar as the point of view of humanity in Theory Y, but I think they overestimate individual’s conscious activity. Moreover, I agree that this is “more blue sky, than blue ocean”, because it is lack of major power in increasing its sustainability, which means following this mode, it won’t last long. In this case, the mode they following isn’t focus on innovative activity. The change they try to create is only based on the surface problem. They changed based on the current leadership’s shortage in details in terms of time and efforts. Therefore, they can keep the organization going, but just going slowly. I think this might because of every time the implementation they created and following are only the response to the problems, and they lack of the vision, a prediction period of the problem. Besides, this kind of adjusting and changing are based on the internal experience from customers, they still ignore other major influence or experience from their competitors as well as the industry information. However, the influence from competitors as well as industry information should also be taken into account, even though they set it into tremendously naïve view, in which politics and individual desire share rare importance.

  15. Christine G says:

    After 27 years in the workforce I cannot say I subscribe to any leadership theories and I think any cookie cutter approach like Blue Ocean Leadership will eventually fail. I think people latch on to theories when they do not have experience. That is ok, we all start somewhere, and the theory may be the basis on which we learn or fail.

    I believe in allowing people to fail when the risks are lower. I say that to my kids all the time. Some of the best learning comes from reflecting on why things did not go well. In our society ‘success’ comes easy and because of this it is often expected and little thought goes into ‘why’ was it a success. As a parent I have resisted the urge to fix or improve my kid’s projects to ensure they get a higher mark. Most of the time, they do well. Occasionally, as is human nature, they do not put in the effort and the outcome is they receive a grade based on what they delivered.

    Leadership is like that, it is a continuous process based on your existing knowledge, skills, and ability. Leadership is the ability to set a vision, to focus on the goal, to act under pressure, to trouble shoot, to make decisions based on calculated risk, to inspire, to motivate, to council, to support and to take accountability. There is no perfect leader and these theories perpetuate this false goal of trying to achieve perfection. Leadership is about doing your best, and learning from your mistakes and applying this inventory of experiences the next day. The idea of marketing your leadership to convert your non-customers to customers sounds like a popularity contest and we all know that can only last until someone more popular comes along. Some of the best leaders during a specific period of time were not popular but they provided the leadership required at the time, to do what needed to be done.

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