Leadership, Management, and Self-Management

January 6, 2012

I view the basic distinction between leadership (“doing the right things”) and management (“doing things right”) as being fundamentally correct, albeit oversimplified. Various forums have raised the question of management versus leadership, with differing opinions on whether one person can be both a manager and a leader. Does this question change in an Agile context?

I believe so. With Agile, traditional lines between leadership, management, and working professionals are blurred. This is not a bad thing, but it is a different thing.

Agile development is about self-managing teams, which covers most of what Wikipedia defines as self-management: “The methods, skills, and strategies by which individuals can effectively direct their own activities toward the achievement of objectives, and includes goal setting, decision-making, focusing, planning, scheduling, task tracking, self-evaluation, self-intervention, self-development, etc.”

Of course, Agile development doesn’t go so far as to explicitly define self-evaluation, self-intervention, and self-development, but technical excellence is expected, as is reflecting on the team’s work, continuous improvement, and the learning that comes with raising and improving your game. As we move deeper into Agile adoptions and acceptance, it only makes sense that self-evaluation/intervention/development become an integral part of everyone’s repertoire.

Talk with any experienced manager and you’ll hear how certain employees don’t require any real management time at all—self-managed individuals have always existed. These employees work on the hardest problems, the most difficult challenges, and always deliver. Even when they encounter bumps in the road, these employees bring options to the table; they don’t “delegate up” and leave everything for the manager to decide. “If everyone was like this,” the manager typically says, “I’d have more time to focus on the business.”

What if self-management became a universal reality? Managers would spend less time managing and have more time available for leading. Managers could develop a deeper understanding of the customer and devote more of their time to setting business direction or aligning the business to better meet the needs of the customer. Managers could also spend more time looking ahead, guiding and preparing the organization for the needs of tomorrow.

Other types of leading can and should be distributed throughout the organization. The important distinction is that this leadership is built around a leader contributing to a desired outcome, not a reporting relationship where the work is judged by a non-participating individual who is “higher up” in the organizational hierarchy. (Reporting to someone is not necessarily the same as being led.)

Scrum, for example, has roles where a certain type of leadership is expected based of that role. Scrum masters are expected to have a deep understanding of Scrum and be able to guide and coach the team. Product Owners are expected to fully understand and represent the business, articulating the value and prioritizing the work based on delivering the greatest value first.

Leaders have followers, and those followers follow because they recognize that the leader has the knowledge and the collaborative skills to guide them in producing a successful outcome. There are people on teams who become leaders because they have expertise and collaborative skills, no title required. After working in a truly Agile context for a while, you should expect to see self-managed teams and individuals increasingly take their cues from those who establish themselves as leaders, regardless of where they are positioned within an organizational hierarchy.

For aspiring leaders, this places a premium on building relationships and the ability to work in team environment. This was recently reinforced by Right Management, who partnered with the research firm Chally Group to survey over 1,400 CEOs and human resource professionals from more than 700 companies globally to explore leadership effectiveness and development across regions and cultures.

This study found that the top reason for a leader’s failure is the inability or unwillingness to build relationships and a team environment. “What emerges from the survey analysis,” Bram Lowsky, Executive Vice President of Right Management says, “is that leadership success is increasingly dependent on getting along with others in the organization as well as with one’s own team. A leader must be able to connect, build relationships and be flexible enough to adapt to the corporate culture.”