The passing of Ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was announced last week. The 91 year old Swede founded the company at the age of 17 with money given to him by his father for doing well at school. He led a company that transformed attitudes to flat-pack furniture and become a global leader in its industry with over 400 stores worldwide and 200,000 employees. In reading about Mr Kamprad, I wondered what his legacy of leadership might be and what was behind his success at Ikea. Here are 3 leadership lessons from the founder of Ikea that stood out for me.

1. Be clear on what you believe

Inspired by the sight of a table with its legs sawn off so it could be carried on a car roof, Mr Kampard believed there was a new way to make and distribute furniture. He believed in great design along with highly efficient manufacturing and distribution.  In the early days, the thought of buying furniture you had to take home and build yourself was unthinkable and even laughable. Nonetheless, his belief was unwavering.

He often talked about the importance of family & local ethos, frugality and treating people honourably.  How he lived his life and led the company were guided by these things.  That included everything from how he named his company (his own initials – IK  along with those of his family farm – Elmtaryd – and nearby town – Agunnaryd) through to the experiences he created in his first warehouse for his employees and customers. He even insisted on driving around in the same old Volvo for 20 years.

A leader must be abundantly clear on the things most important to them and act in accordance to the principles every day.  Above anything else, followers want their leader to be congruent and authentic.  That means your beliefs, words and actions must always be aligned.

2. Stay Connected

He said in an interview in the 1980’s that his vision for Ikea was for it to be a company that would make life easier for its customers.  As the success of Ikea grew, Mr Kampard still insisted on economy travel and staying in local, independent hotels.  He said he always wanted to stay connected with the people he served and felt he couldn’t do that in the first-class lounge or in a large internationally branded chain-hotel.

A leader’s primary role is to serve the people they are privileged to lead.  Finding ways of staying connected with your employees and customers is always important.  The further up the career ladder we go the opportunities for that to happen naturally reduce, and we have to be more purposeful in how we create new ways of maintaining these connections. 

3. Be aware of your conflicting preferences

Ingvar Kampard was an innovator. However he was not naturally an experimenter. His instinctive approach was to discover what works and quickly embed consistent winning practices.  While wanting a team of innovators he would challenge new ideas to the point where projects were often delayed.  He relied on his strong connections with his team and sharing these contrasting preferences.  This meant he created the conditions where his people could still perform without the otherwise inevitable misunderstandings his approach would create.

A leader’s emotional intelligence is key to their effectiveness.  We must be clear of our unique preferences and the impact they have on those around us. Every leader, every human, has a unique set of preference that mean our own behaviour makes perfect sense. And it is different to everyone else.  A leader must take time to ensure their team can understand how they operate, particularly when seemingly  contrasting preferences exist.

Final thoughts

Ingvar Kampard was not perfect, there were well-publicised decisions he made early in his career that I believe he genuinely regretted in later life.  As the phrase goes, to err is to be human.  Lessons of leadership are always around us and I found this a useful exploration to find 3 leadership lessons from the founder of Ikea.

Leadership is an ongoing commitment. Creating and living our core beliefs, gaining a deep understanding of our own preferences and how they impact those around us and developing relationships that serve and inspire those we have chosen to lead.

“If there is such a thing as good leadership, it is to give a good example. I have to do so for all the IKEA employees.” – Ingvar Kamprad