Bosses? Agile don’t need no stinkin’ bosses!

agile servant leadership is not thisWhere does the traditional, hierarchical role of “Boss” or the Agile Manager role fit in at an organization that is guided by the values and principles of the Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

In my experience with teams of any maturity level,  bosses are simply not needed. In fact they are a hindrance, and often a destructive influence. What is useful is a community of  leaders, or to borrow a term from martial arts: Sempai. Not so much in the traditional Japanese definition of the word – elders – but more in the sense of those who might be a step or two ahead of others on the way, or Do.

Anti-Patterns – Agile Manager Roles

In her absolutely wonderful book Coaching Agile Teams, Lyssa Adkins provides a list of personas that she calls “Failure Modes” for coaches, scrum masters, and I extend them to Bosses and Managers in general. Her full list is:

  • The Spy – Spends just enought time observing things to pick up topics for the next retro, or performance review, and then slinks off into the darkness
  • The Seagull –  Swoops in, steals some food, drops some well-intentioned observation or advice and then flies away.
  • The Opinionator – Expresses opinions often, gets attached to them, looses objectivity
  • The Admin – Undermines team ownership by becoming an unnecessary middle man for logistics, approval, information
  • The Hub – Acts as the center of the universe for communication and task-level coordination
  • The Butterfly – Flits from team to team, landing just long enough to impact some pearl of wisdom
  • The Expert – Gets so involved in the details, that they lose the forest for the trees
  • The Nag – “Helpfully” reminds the team…

Guilty as Charged

And I admit, I have played more than one of these roles at one time or another. I had the best of intentions, really I did. And I was often oblivious to the impact I had on the team. And then one day I realized why I was acting the way I was. It was simple: I wasn’t trusting the team.

Other Failure Modes

Conjure up your own memories of “bad bosses” or those playing the agile manager role (past, present and future) and see how many of these other failure modes you see:

  • Resistance to change
  • Lack of honesty
  • Relying on authority instead of trust
  • Requiring compliance instead of commitment
  • Falling back into old habits when faced with fear, ambiguity, or adversity

But wait, there’s more…

From the classic HBR article Are You Sure You’re Not a Bad Boss? comes the following “Top 10 list” from most to least fatal boss / manager patterns:

  1. Failure to inspire, owing to a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Again and again failed leaders were described by their colleagues as unenthusiastic and passive. This was in fact the most noticeable of all their failings.
  2. Acceptance of mediocre performance in place of excellent results. The poorest leaders did not set stretch goals, inadvertently encouraging mediocre performance by letting people coast along doing less work, less well than their counterparts working for better managers.
  3. A lack of clear vision and direction. Poor leaders have a murky view of the future, don’t know precisely what direction to take, and are (not surprisingly) unwilling to communicate about the future, leaving their subordinates with no clear path forward.
  4. An inability to collaborate and be a team player. Poor leaders avoid their peers, act independently, and fail to develop positive relations with colleagues. The worst of them view work as a competition and their colleagues as opponents.
  5. Failure to walk the talk. Saying one thing and doing another is the fastest way to lose the trust of all your colleagues. The worst offenders here also pose a wider threat as dangerous role models — creating the risk that their organizations will degenerate if others behave as they do.
  6. Failure to improve and learn from mistakes. Arrogance and complacency combine in the poorest leaders as they rise, causing them to come to the dangerous conclusion that they’ve reached a stage in their careers where development is no longer required. Closely connected to this failing is an inability to learn from mistakes, leaving these unfortunates to repeat the same ones over and over.
  7. An inability to lead change or innovate owing to a resistance to new ideas. Whether stemming from a lack of imagination or simply too closed a mind-set, this flaw manifests itself as a failure to take suggestions from subordinates or peers.
  8. A failure to develop others. Leaders who were not concerned about helping their direct reports develop and were not seen as coaches or mentors were highly likely to fail. Primarily focused on themselves, they were not concerned about the longer-term success of their employees or their department.
  9. Inept interpersonal skills. These are the leaders who are rude, talk down, yell, and belittle either out of positive malice or out of boorish insensitivity. But even these failings often are manifested in things these poor leaders don’t do. Included in this group are the people who don’t listen, don’t ask good questions, don’t reach out to others, and don’t praise or otherwise reinforce good behavior and success.
  10. Displays of bad judgment that leads to poor decisions. Here at the bottom are the leaders who lead the troops over the cliff by deciding to do the wrong things.

Do you recognize any of these patterns in yourself? In your organization?

The Noble Path Forward

I read somewhere that the definition of a boss / manager was someone who walked around letting you know how important they were. That command-and-control, hierarchy-based, model – inherited from the military – clearly will not help us in the rapidly changing, disruptive world in which we live today.

To truly harness the passion, intelligence and spirit of our teams, we must use a very different model of community – one that continually builds and shares knowledge. As Peter Senge wrote in Communities of Leaders and Learners, we must:

  • Surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organizations from on high
  • Distribute leadership among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organization’s future
  • Build communities of leaders who empower their organizations to learn with head, heart, and hand

Leaders walk around and make sure you know how important you are.

If you still aren’t convinced of the wisdom inherit in this approach, Yves Hanoulle, Meike Mertsch and Ignace Hanoulle have recently published: The Leadership Game in which they provide a great way to experience the difference between command-and-control agile manager roles, self-organizing teams and coaching leadership styles.

It is a three-hour game built around the daily practices of Agile teams and guides participants to use  those different leadership styles, each exaggerated, to gain insights about:

  • The different results that can be achieved by different approaches
  • Individual personal preferences
  • Group dynamic effects

Patterns of Success

These new communities of leaders will help influence organizations and teams via “What and Why” – a vision, the set of desired outcomes and purpose – instead of “When and How.” They will invite participation within the guardrails of Agile’s values and principles.

what it takes to be a true servant leaderThe patterns for success in this model (in no particular order) include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Self management and true listening
  • Curiosity
  • Commitment and confidence
  • Protection as well as oversight
  • Invitation or persuasion rather than mandate or coercion
  • Communication with transparency, openness, and vulnerability at all levels
  • Clarity of goals
  • Managing expectations, accepting transition costs
  • Embracing empirical development, ambiguity, and continuous learning
  • A desire for success that is greater than one’s fear of failure
  • Self managing, cross functional, persistent teams that own project success, and embrace failures
  • Senior sponsors that champion the transition
  • Practice, practice, practice

Servant Leadership

The mark of a leader, an attribute that puts him in a position to show the way for others, is that he is better than most at pointing the direction. Our best leaders will be true servants first and foremost. How will we recognize them? Robert Greenleaf provides the test:

The best test, and difficult to administer is: do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.

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