To Be a Good Leader, Become a Better Servant
Good leaders come in all shapes and sizes, yet they aren’t always easy to find.
If you’re interested in pursuing leadership roles—and not everyone is—it’s important to start by asking yourself why you want to be a leader. Is it because you want everything to be about you? Is it because you’re a master of your craft? Is it because you want the title or a pay raise?
Answering yes to one or two of those questions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but wanting to serve others—not wanting them to serve you—is one of the best signs of an effective leader.
As agile coach Bob Galen put it, “Part of leadership is a courage proposition of defending your team, representing your team, and taking risks.”
Being a leader is not about doing more of the work or being the most technical person on your team. Rather, being a leader is actually about giving up some of your work to help others grow. It’s about being a support system and sticking up for your team when experiments go sideways. Being a leader is about knowing when to hand off the reins and help new leaders flourish.
As a leader, you want to identify skill gaps in yourself and in your team. By understanding where those gaps are, leaders can empower their teams to grow by coaching them through those gaps. From a skills perspective, leaders shouldn’t tell people how to act; leaders should let people figure it out themselves. Leaders often want to share their hard-earned experience with others, but telling someone what to avoid isn’t always the best way to help them learn.
Agile practices lead Mary Thorn, who has presented with Galen about leading high-performing agile teams, likes to follow the 95 percent rule: As a leader, if there are a hundred times you can tell someone what to do, take five. If someone on your team is about to make a dire, career-ending mistake, step in and let them know. However, if someone is about to hit a speed bump at 35 miles per hour, let them. They’ll learn, adapt, and experiment differently the next time. It’s about getting away from telling and getting to inspiring.
Also, the 95 percent rule doesn’t say leaders should sit in their offices all day and not do anything; quite the opposite. Leaders should be in the war room finding out what blockers their teams have and trying to provide solutions to help their teams experiment and take risks. Leaders should coach their people by asking questions and empowering them.
As leaders, we can tell people to be vulnerable, but that’s not going to be very effective. However, we can show them. Teams pay attention to leaders, so if you have been vulnerable and transparent, have had the team’s back, have experimented—and failed, and gotten back up—your team will follow in your footsteps. And, eventually, your team will lead.