This is part one in a series on leading agile teams from the Beyond Agile book. We will examine what leadership entails and how it applies to agile teams. Then discuss the transition from servant leadership to shared leadership.
EQ as a Foundation for Leadership
As we saw in the previous articles about Emotional Intelligence (EQ), leadership is built on top of EQ. We need good EQ to be able to recognize and manage our own emotions. This is a prerequisite for others to consider us credible and worth listening to. So, a firm grasp of EQ, either gained intuitively or improved through study/training, brings us to the starting line with engaged stakeholders. Then leadership involves bringing this collective willpower to bear on a vision or a journey to our project or product outcome.
We can create backlogs and release plans all we like, but until there is a motivated team with a shared vision of the end goal, it is like trying to push a rope—ineffective. Leadership is focused on creating the pull from the team and giving the team the goal and tools to overcome obstacles.
Leadership is a Huge Topic
Leadership has been around far longer than project management (which primarily grew from the Industrial Revolution.) Leadership goes back as far as people have lived together and worked together to achieve common goals, whether invading a neighboring tribe, traveling to new lands, or building a large structure.
There are over 70,000 published English-language books on leadership. If you read one daily, it would take you 191 years to finish them (by which time there would likely be 70,000 new ones to read). With such a deep history and broad scope, we need a focus to best direct our guidance toward knowledge-worker team execution.
So we will take a product-focused view toward leadership and concentrate on the leadership traits and steps necessary for building and leveraging high-performing teams in complex knowledge-work environments. Unlike many leadership books available, we will not cover leading companies or organizational change; instead, we will focus on leading projects and programs to deliver desired outcomes.
What Leadership Is Not
Unfortunately, there are many myths and misconceptions about what leadership means. So, before we get into how to become a better leader, we should dispel some of these myths that are common barriers to understanding.
The best metaphor I’ve heard for dispelling leadership myths is the “Cowboy leader” by Pinto et al. When we think of a cowboy, we often picture the lone-wolf movie character who acts independently, often above the law, thinks on his feet, and saves the day. He cuts through bureaucratic red tape, circles the wagons, and rallies the people to overcome the bad guys. Then our hero rides off into the sunset with the pretty schoolteacher and onto his next adventure.
Yet this is just a movie-star definition of a cowboy, portrayed by the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Clint Eastwood. Do you know what a real cowboy does? They lead cows. They use their dogged determination to turn and drive bovine herds toward the desired goal. I am not trying to be derogatory here, comparing your company’s staff to unintelligent cows; I am making the point that real cowboys do not typically do a lot of shooting of bad guys and rescuing damsels in distress.
Also, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Clint Eastwood are Hollywood actors, not cowboys. They live in big, fancy houses and do not spend much time around farm animals. Would you really trust them to look after cows? Your cows?
The term leadership is often loaded with this romantic notion of a swashbuckling go-getter with a larger-than-life rockstar personality. Yet, in reality, some of the best leaders are quiet, introverted people who care deeply for their teams and stakeholders and quietly grind away toward a common goal.
Real leadership is based on sound theory. It can be learned and exercised on a small scale before being brought to bear on larger groups. Authentic leadership is practiced on mundane things, yet when more significant events occur, the skills and trust of others can be used to overcome significant hurdles.
Additional leadership myths include the beliefs that leadership needs to reside in a single person and that all groups need leaders. Quite often, leadership roles are shared between team members. In fact, it is unlikely that any one person would be solely equipped to lead a team in all circumstances.
Establishing environments where people can step up to lead when the need arises creates resilience and competitive advantage. Likewise, some small teams without the need for high-consequence decision-making can operate just fine without a leader.
What Leadership Is
So, having established that leadership is not swashbuckling behavior or an innate quality of character, let us look at what it is. There are many different leadership models, but the same roles crop up repeatedly. Listing them is the easy part. We will then focus on the more difficult topic of how we achieve them, given all the challenges of project constraints, opposing demands, and people conflicts.
Leaders exhibit the following attributes:
- Good communication skills
- Ability to inspire trust
- Ability to empower
- Energy and action orientation
- Emotional expressiveness and warmth
- Willingness to take personal risks
- Use of unconventional strategies
Let’s look at each of these characteristics in turn.
Vision - The ability to create and describe an exciting view of the future state. This includes what success looks like and the benefits it will bring to the sponsoring organization, the users of the end result, and the team members who created it. It provides a common goal to guide the team in times of questioning and decision-making. It is what we are aiming for.
Good communication skills - A vision, support, and guidance are useless unless we have a way to communicate them to people. Communication skills are required to inspire, inform, and advise stakeholders. They are also crucial for receiving information and quickly building rapport with a wide variety of groups and individuals.
Ability to inspire trust - Studies show that the greatest attribute people look for in leaders is honesty and trustworthiness. Working for someone we do not trust undermines our feelings of self-worth and respect in the long run. To be an effective leader, we must act honestly and with integrity—otherwise, people will not work with us.
Ability to empower - We should make use of people’s knowledge and skills by trusting them to do a good job. We must also be able to make the team feel capable and develop team members to their fullest potential.
Energy and action orientation - Effective leaders have elevated levels of energy and enthusiasm for work, which is contagious. We must understand that it is impossible to inspire others if we are apathetic or lukewarm in our reaction to the challenges.
Emotional expressiveness and warmth - Leaders must be able to express their feelings openly, but without venting or alarming people. They should not keep others guessing about their emotional state, but instead, be approachable and warm cheerleaders for the endeavor.
Willingness to take personal risks - It is desirable to have some skin in the game, to be personally invested beyond just a role, and to have some reputation or repercussion invested in the outcome. Like successful entrepreneurs, leaders are not risk-averse.
Use of unconventional strategies - Leaders must think creatively and not be constrained by conventional approaches. They are happy to model the desired behavior by trying new techniques and experiments.
These characteristics are the goal; things get more difficult when it comes to achieving them under challenging circumstances.
Shared Leadership: Primary Colors® Model
The Primary Colors Model of leadership was one of the first to recognize that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any individual to possess all the attributes needed to be a complete leader. Instead, it recommends leaders build leadership teams that comprise all the necessary skills.
The Primary Colors Model offers ideas similar to those found in “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” a 2007 paper published in the Harvard Business Review. Its authors suggest that successful leadership comprises four capabilities:
- Sensemaking: Understanding the context of the company and how people operate. Having a talent or knack for explaining these complexities to others.
- Relating: Being able to build trusting relationships with others.
- Visioning: Creating compelling images of the future by collaborating with others on what they want and then explaining it.
- Inventing: Developing new ways to bring the vision to life.
The Primary Colors Model contains three intersecting domains of strategy, operations, and interpersonal skills. It also uses a human-anatomy metaphor to explain these functions and how they interact. The strategic domain is like the head, responsible for thinking; the operational domain is the hands and legs, responsible for getting things done and moving the organization or product forward; and the interpersonal domain is the heart and deals with forming relationships, motivation, and EI.
These domains and functions are shown in figure 11.2.
FIGURE 11.2 The Primary Colours Model of Leadership
In this human-anatomy analogy, the Primary Colors Model places leading at the center, like a central nervous system. It senses, balances, and coordinates all the other functions.
At the intersection of these overlapping functions are three key roles of a leader. Creating alignment is at the intersection of strategy (head) and interpersonal (heart) since it deals with creating a rational and emotional commitment. Team working, the skill of getting things done, is at the intersection of operational (arms and legs) and interpersonal (heart) since it deals with work and motivation. Finally, planning and organizing is at the intersection of strategic (head) and operational (arms and legs) since it deals with planning the work that needs to be done.
Now we know what functions need to happen and that it is unlikely that any single person has all the necessary skills. So, the next logical step is to assess our own skills, recognize our gaps, and go find people with the skills to fill those gaps. This is another instance where having diversity on the team is helpful. Diversity is Darwinian: The greater the diversity in the resource pool, the greater the range of external events that can be responded to successfully.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, once joked, “If you find anyone in your organization who agrees with everything you say, fire them! Why pay twice for the same opinions?”
So, diversity is good, but how do we measure it? A simple approach is to assess people’s affinity for or attraction to different work types. Vocation-planning tools used in schools try to determine likely “fit” by assessing people on two ranges. The first range is things or people, and asks if individuals are happier working with things (be they animal, vegetable, mineral, or machine) or happier working with people. People who are interested in things enjoy collecting, constructing, and categorizing them, and analyzing them and their functions. People who prefer people enjoy emotions and idiosyncrasies; they are drawn to people for stimulation and support.
The second range is data or ideas, and asks if people prefer working with data and facts or with ideas and possibilities. People who prefer facts and data tend to be practical, data-analytics types. They are persuaded by logical, here-and-now facts and data. People who are drawn to ideas, possibilities, and theories enjoy what-if scenarios and are divergent thinkers. They may be thought of as creatives or dreamers.
Assessing people on these two ranges helps us determine where we fit and where others on our teams fit. The ranges and categories of preferences are shown in figure 11.3.
FIGURE 11.3 Two Dimensions of Vocational Preference
Here we see three roles and their positioning based on work preference. “Strategic” indicates someone who leans more toward the ideas end of the data-to-ideas spectrum and who is happy dealing with ambiguity. ‘Operational/Technical” shows someone who leans more toward the data end of the data-to-ideas spectrum and toward the things end of the things-to-people range. Finally, “Interpersonal/Supervisory” shows someone who is more comfortable with people than things and who prefers data over ideas.
Incidentally, full personality assessments such as Myers-Briggs, Belbin, or the Big Five typically take about an hour or so to administer. But having team members indicate where on this chart they rate themselves is quick and makes a great retrospective or team-building exercise to illustrate and respect diversity.
In figure 11.3, it is difficult for people to move between these roles as it requires major shifts in focus and interests. The nearer people are toward the center, the easier it will be for them to move into each of these roles.
Combining the Primary Colours Model of leadership with these personality traits reveals additional useful ways to categorize the functions and roles of leadership. Figure 11.4 shows the two models superimposed.
FIGURE 11.4 Primary Colours Model Combined with Personality Traits
Here we see the two job-preference dimensions of things/tasks to people on the x-axis and data/ present to ideas/future on the y-axis. Also shown are ovals representing the personality traits of the people who operate well in that domain and boxes representing the classical elements of air, fire, earth, and water.
Does your team have people that can assist in the roles of Influencer, Relationship Builder, Implementor, or Strategist? Of course it does, so tap into those abilities. Lean thinking tells us that Non-utilized Talent is a form of waste, let’s not be wasteful and instead increase the team’s effectiveness and the likelihood of success.
The Primary Colors Model is powerful for several reasons. First, it legitimizes the idea of shared leadership and the need for collecting a set of competencies from the team and distributing power. Second, the human-anatomy metaphor creates an easily understood structure for uniting the skills and functions necessary for leadership, which are often described as discrete, unconnected, or vaguely connected elements in other models. Finally, it aligns well with vocational preference models and work types.
- Leadership can be shared.
- People have distinct preferences for dealing with things or people, hard facts or ideas.
- Holistic leadership needs to address all these dimensions.
<This is an excerpt from Beyond Agile. In future posts, we will explore additional shared leadership examples and introduce Host Leadership as a framework for implementing shared leadership in an agile team setting.>