Be a Servant Leader

Managers: be a Servant Leader.   Why?   Because it works.

I’ve been practicing Agile in various forms since 2006, and along the way someone taught me about the concept of Servant Leadership.    As I learned more, I found that Servant Leadership fits my natural leadership style, so it is something I’ve embraced in my career, and it’s paid off well.

Over the years, I’ve seen many people who aspire to this style of leadership behave in what is essentially an anti-pattern.   This has been witnessed by me many times:

  • A team is in a room, or on a conference call, addressing something important.   This could be a red team addressing a problem, an application deployment that isn’t going well, a testing session, anything around which a company might assemble a team aimed at quick resolution.
  • The team is working productively, calmly, with a reasonable method of hypothesis development and testing, and all is going as well as possible.   Then, an executive or another manager joins in.
  • The manager may listen quietly for 10-15 seconds, or even a few minutes, and then, attempting to help, begins asking questions.
  • The team perceives the questions as direction, drops what it’s doing, loses its focus, and chaos ensues.    People are concerned with addressing the manager’s questions, testing the manager’s theories, basically abiding the manager’s desire take the lead in solving a problem that may or may not be well understood.

Here’s my suggestion, other managers: If you want to find out how that team is doing, it would be acceptable to call in, but only if you don’t speak (other than to offer kudos to the team for solving the problem, once it’s solved, or to announce that dinner is on its way).

Of course, if you’re pretty confident that the team is going off the rails due to fatigue or knowledge gaps that you can fill, then get in there and help.   But keep in mind that as soon as you speak, you will likely cause a change in their focus.  You may be directly, negatively impacting productivity, motivation, and leading to a longer Time To Resolution.

If you think it’s OK for you to jump in and start testing knowledge in the heat of the battle because nobody is intimidated by you, you’re probably wrong.

Be a Servant Leader.   Be there to help when the team needs you, and be out of the way when the team is doing well without you.


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