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#43 I-driven visual leadership with Gwendolyn Galsworth.

Proudly brought to you in association with S A Partners, a world-leading business transformation consultancy.


Welcome to Episode 43 of the enterprise excellence podcast. It is such a pleasure to have Dr Gwendolyn Galsworth back on the show with us today. Gwendolyn is a leading researcher, author and coach on workplace visuality. Gwendolyn shared her backstory and knowledge on achieving excellence with frontline teams deploying visual workplaces in Episode 18. Today, we are going to explore her work on visual leadership.


A great leader, and why are they fabulous?

During very tumultuous times, Joe Case, the head of Frydenberg, was a big man, big and burly, and had a big voice. People listened when he spoke, but he was also a gentle giant. Joe had moments when he could be personal, present, polite, but also he could be the volcano pouring out on you, and you listened very carefully. He was agile from that point of view; he could do both. NLK supplied small machine parts in one of its divisions, and Gwendolyn worked in Cleveland, Georgia. They had a really smart visual production floor that was there before she arrived. She was amazed at the cleverness of it in the way they got their production to work. But Joe required that of all of his plants. And the feeling is that if he said, go over that cliff, he would go first, and you would follow him without hesitation because it would be an important next step. Improvement was hardwired into him. He would always keep going, keep going, keep thinking, keep investigating and experimenting.

Do you know when you're around someone who burns the brightest when challenged and gives that to others?

Another person who comes to Gwendolyn's mind is Elon Musk, who she believes is extraordinary in his vision. Think of Falcon Heavy and what he did by requiring those parts to be recyclable. It is such a requirement that it would break your brain to imagine it! But that was the only way he could make it cost-effective to start creating traffic to the moon and use it as an aeroplane, not as a disposable. Do you know that when the plane drops you off in San Francisco, New York or Paris, it comes back? That's the business model. But for Elon Musk to bring that fiery business requirement to his engineers, well, people just came alive. And, of course, he had enormous resources to put behind his vision. But those kinds of leaders are not the kinds of leaders that we are promoting nowadays. We're not putting that competency or that vision first.

Before we go on, a few points about executives, managers, and supervisors, though they both have a decided leadership role. If the executive has vision and has harnessed their vision to their will, you've got the beginning of greatness. And then executive turns to their managers and supervisors and gives them a slightly different assignment in the following role, but never not a leader.

What led Gwendolyn to discover I-driven?

First of all, Gwendolyn is interested in visual reality as a language and its ability to liberate people. She has seen that you liberate the human will when you liberate information. The idea that people would come to work and bring their will, feel that it was theirs to use, and then enrol in the corporate intent was a great temptation for Gwendolyn, and she wanted to find out how to do it and do it repeatedly.

Gwendolyn was quite amazed at the result of bringing visuality to operators and knew that it was going to be exciting and valuable but didn't know it was going to be transformative. Gwendolyn has been doing 5S since 1984 and been failing for a very long time. After listening to angry, sweaty, American men and women who didn't want to do 5S and listening to their pain and their will, she developed the I-driven approach. And it transformed everything because she had the entire resource of the person. Gwendolyn then saw that the supervisors and managers struggled if they did not have the support of the senior leader.

An example of I-driven leadership

Ron Page, who came from the aluminium casting industry, was one of Gwendolyn's first experiments. She asked him, "What would it be like if you became a visual leader?" She presented the operation systems improvement template to him, which is the house, and asked if he would like to learn. He was keen, wanting to improve as a leader, and together they walked through the template of the house, beginning with the customer, the vision, and the mission, values and beliefs.

Gwendolyn met with him a month later. Ron was so excited about it that he had his model shop create a three-dimensional house. The house was made out of plexiglass, and inside it was a man climbing a mountain. It was a piece of art. And he said, "This is it, this is the way." When Gwendolyn saw that he could organise his will around the structure, she thought, there it is again. Visuality is about structuring information into the physical living landscape of work.

Gwendolyn had been given a gift and wanted to give it back to others.

How do you complete the sentence I want?

Gwendolyn gives this question to everyone now. How do you complete the sentence I want? Gwendolyn feels that we are so schooled and politically correct that we are polite first before we know what we want, and it just turns us into vanilla. You can't lead vanilla.

Gwendolyn's two-dimensional templates help define your vision.

Gwendolyn shows her house template again here and believes that you must deconstruct it and fill it in, in your own words. You have to hear your own words and know whether or not your vision matches the corporate vision. And if it doesn't, how are you going to sell your vision to corporate? How are you going to say, "This is the piece that I want to pursue." The executive should sit by him or herself, alone, from 11 pm to 1 am, when it's really quiet in the house and neighbourhood. And splat themself on that house template page; this is the first step of visual executive leadership.

The second step is the x type matrix. You have to make it editable, cross parts out and add other words in. It's a dynamic instrument. So these two-dimensional structures are critical. And there is a sequence. And it's saying, "This is what I stand for." If a leader hasn't taken that time to be I-driven and create this voice, they're having to micromanage and drag people around, or everyone stops doing their own thing, and the whole organisation is chaos.

I-driven leaders

Some leaders are gifted and have not had a chance to demonstrate their gift, but they're still doing well. But what would it be like to be great? Like the thoroughbreds at Monmouth Park that Gwendolyn witnessed when she was small. When they ran, no one needed to whip them, especially if another horse was in the race. They loved the race. They loved the stretch of their legs, powerfully moving them forward, and the wind in their hair. And they won because they wanted to. They are stallions. They were amazing beings, creatures of great strength and great heart. The age of great leaders is not over with, but they do have to find their way back into our communities.

When we liberate information, we liberate the human will. And that is graduated based on what your function is. What is your role? Where do you contribute? So what do I need to know? What I need to share on the operator level is precisely calibrated to that specific operator; we liberate that information, the operator is liberated. On a senior level, suddenly, the executive who has been given a job and has some background can own the situation, however bad it is. And if it's a good situation, then he, she can say, "We've got enough now. Let's grow the company."

An executive will make decisions with the teams' input. But first, with their vetting of which type of problem-solving is welcome in their company. The role of the executive is to decide and drive, decide and drive. She can't decide until she knows. So she has to investigate and understand what the lay of the land is. And he can't drive unless he's communicated a clear vision and inspired others to want that vision. Now the executive leader is ready to drive.

When an executive wants to become a leader, this is a process, and the process is I-driven. But he, she doesn't seek feedback.

The leader says to their direct reports, "Now you do the templates (the house and x type planning). And when you've done this and gone through the pain of sitting from 11 pm to 1 am and have given them to me, you can talk to one other person. But that one other person can't be doing this (planning) at the same time."

That's the grooming ground for executives; executives must really understand that it is their decision. And they'll receive inputs from qualified collaborators. Gwendolyn has been very successful at creating fierce leaders, like a barracuda on the inside, always hungry for lunch. But whom on the outside have political and social correctness that makes them approachable.

But when push comes to shove, that leader knows how to do two things, knows how to say no, and knows how to say yes. But how do they say yes to the few? And weight to the many? Do I know why? An executive leader is a decision-maker. They give their vision, and everyone says Holy cow, that's amazing, quietly to themselves. Or Holy cow, I'm in big trouble, that's not even close; I've got a lot of work to do one way or the other. People with their voice, and house, won't align in the leader's vision; they have their vision, and if it is close enough to the leaders, they will be okay with seeking the same goal together.

Alignment between leaders

Gwendolyn believes that this conversation takes time. That conversation is the pause, "Okay, you've got your house, or you have your x type, and I have mine. Now, let's find an alignment." The executive leader needs to give that time at some point. And then have a conversation, "I love your thinking, but you're two years ahead of me. This is what we need to do this year, and we're going to go in this direction." And when people feel that they've had a chance to say it, and you've received it, that's what satisfying. It doesn't have to be now. You're the executive leader and need to make the hard decisions. It's going to be you hanging off the limb there. And people will follow you. But you're going to go first.

We know that outstanding leadership can evolve from a burning platform. Think of the great war, world war 2. Leadership truly mattered for both sides—Roosevelt and Churchill, and equally, Hitler. We have more than enough current burning platforms, like the environment, and, thanks to Covid, healthcare and hospitals to drive motivation and build outstanding leadership. We have been tested and tempered over the last year and a half, and greatness can come out of that. Now is a big opportunity for leaders to stand up and show their drive and energy to move the world forwards.

What is Gwendolyn's two-minute tip for executive leadership?

Change the title of leaders throughout your company. Instead of managers and supervisors, see leadership as leaders of improvement. You are the executive leader of improvement, then leaders of improvement, then self leaders. It's not anarchy. It is a seasoned, whole, harmonious, powerful organisation.

Gwendolyn then tells us of the Japanese study tour in 1985 with a tier-one supplier to Toyota. Here is the quote:

We had gone through this amazing tour, a tour where we saw a woman change over nine machines in two minutes and 10 seconds. But in fact, when we looked again, Roger said, No, come back, look it. Watch. She's, she's putting the new model in place, and she's making that final piece. This change of nine machines took zero. It was all one touch. It was just astonishing things like that. So everybody came into this boardroom. And we were; we knew that we didn't have the mental, emotional and spiritual capability to understand what we just saw. And we were asked to ask questions. So my group just reverted to, you know, like a rubber band. What's a question? Like, what just happened is the question? What the heck was that? But this question was, what's the ratio between supervisors and operators? You know, that same old very question. What's the ratio? And the plant manager and I can see his face. He was extraordinary to look at. But I don't remember his name. I regret that. He said we don't have supervisors. So we're speaking in a foreign language, so we put our heads together; what words can we use? Well, how many, how many supervisors? How many people do you have managing your operators? And the same man said, he said, we don't have managers. And so, hold on, and there was a huddle with the interpreter. And she said, I've no idea what to ask, I don't know what he's talking about. Better ask him what he's talking about. So she did. And so she said, Sir, we don't understand. Can you help us, please? We don't know what word to use for supervisors or managers. But we're trying to figure out how this works. And he says, We don't have any supervisors or managers. The only thing we have are leaders of improvement.

That situation stayed with Gwendolyn. And she said, "Someday, I'm going to be able to use what I learned in those three, four minutes to do something that will make a contribution." She began working with supervisors and managers with the idea of becoming a leader of improvement. And then from there, work with executives. Gwendolyn can see the powerful combination of using the I need approach to get that focus and drive forward.

Shifting identity

The entire paradigm of the visual information sharing workplace is about shifting identity. We see it in some workplaces since the early 1980s, when these ideas came from Japan. Japan, which was under so much pressure. They had to shift their identity because the identity that they were embracing got them into World War Two and got them smashed. So they needed to find a new identity for themselves that had dignity and power because the Japanese people have never not been powerful.

Their first encounter with the West was powerful, but their fifth encounter with the West was devastating. But they were still so hot on the inside, as calm and serene as they appear on the outside. So a shift in identity is what our work is about because it needs to shift, and that's what's happened to us with COVID.

Future book: "The I of the Leader: the Principles and Practices of Visual Leadership"

Gwendolyn wants to be part of helping people create the forged blade that cuts into their being and brings out their burning agility and flexibility. She is writing a book, "The I of the Leader: the Principles and Practices of Visual Leadership". She believes that there aren't any executive tracks, and it's a shortcoming in our current lean model. We talk about leader standard work. But let's find a frame for that, that inspires and allows us to make decisions.

Key Takeaways

'I want' leadership approach

Helping others align their plan

The I want leadership approach to planning Gwendolyn spoke about is powerful when combined with my second takeaway of helping others form and develop their aligned plan. A leader can draw on macro and micro information to define their vision, purpose, goals and strategic focus areas. The key then is helping others form their plan aligned to this top-line plan. As the planning process cascades through the organisation, plans become more project-based and then tactic and measure focused at the front line. Out of this approach comes an aligned, motivated organisation at all levels as everyone owns and is accountable for achieving the overall plan.


12:10min I met with him, and I came back a month later. And he had had his model shop create a three-dimensional house. He was so excited about it. But it was made out of plexiglass. It would sit about 8 feet high. And it was a house. And inside it was a man climbing a mountain. It was a piece of art. And he said, look at this Gwendolyn. And I thought, what is that and what have I done? And he said, "This is it. This is the way". He was on fire. Very ready to go. And oh, is a great natural leader. But when I saw that he was able to organise his will around the structure, I thought, there it is, again. Visuality is physical. Visuality is about structure. Visuality is about structuring information into the physical living landscape of work. Leaders can do it too.

16:11min You face a two-dimensional object that has architecture on it, and you try to fit yourself into it. You fill in the pieces. If you get this from corporate, then you deconstruct it, and you have to make it your own. You have to hear your own words, how you fill it in and whether or not your vision matches the corporate vision. And if it doesn't, how are you going to sell your vision to corporate? How are you going to say this is the piece that I want to pursue. It is a part of what you want. This is how it fits.

22:31min And I was around them in my youth, and I used to see them run the thoroughbreds at Monmouth Park. When they ran, no one needed to whip them, especially if another horse was in the race. They loved the race. They loved the stretch of their legs, powerfully moving them forward, and the wind in their hair. And they won because they wanted to. You know what I mean? These were stallions. These were amazing beings, creatures of great strength and great heart. Yeah. Are we less than that? Yeah. No, of course, we're not. No, we're not. The age of great leaders is not over with, but we do have to find our way back.

26:03min But, the role of the executive is to decide and drive, decide and drive. She can't decide until she knows. So she has to investigate and know what the lay of the land is. And she can't drive unless she's communicated a clear vision and inspired others to want that vision. Now you're ready to drive.

43:05min For the senior leader, it's really, I want. It's more than...I need. It's truly; I want this. Because it's a vision. And you have to love and want something that isn't there but can be. And that's where the great thrust forward is. You're embracing the future, and it's very, very compelling.


Gwendolyn Galsworth

Website: and 'contact us' through the web. Gwendolyn is looking for organisations or people who want to go through this process online in small groups. She would love for some executive leaders to look at themselves and say they want to feel greater strength and greater power and greater safety in their own decision-making safety. She is eager to do this with whoever raises their hand and says, Let's go.

It's certainly timely, isn't it? For organisations to build that focus and real vision for the future. And to help turn fear and uncertainty into energy and drive towards that vision and those common aligned goals.

Thanks for helping us create a better future. We value your time and knowledge, Gwendolyn.

Brad Jeavons

Brad is proud to support many Australian businesses. You can find him on LinkedIn here. If you’d like to speak to him about how he can help your business, call him on 0402 448 445, or email Our website is

Written by Emily Jeavons

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