Looking For Leaders In All The Wrong Places

When I was a young developer, there was a re-org in the company. I found myself a team leader.

That is the normal thing in software organizations (and I assume also in others)  - you get a promotion because you’re competent enough in your current job. It’s not stupid (although many times with disastrous results), just normal. What made me a team leader was my track record as a developer. It seemed obvious that I could lead other developers to the same results.

Obviously not. I was a lousy team leader.

There are so many books about leadership. How to become a leader, what it takes to lead. But we’re so enamored with the star power of the leader, we forget something.

There are no leaders without followers

We really have a hard time to describe why we follow someone. Why we find time to listen to her, or read her blog, while dismiss others. Why we roll our eyes when the team leader says something, while the other team lead makes sense. Or even decide to give up qualities of life by voting for official positions.

If you break it down, it’s comes down to basic human feelings. Our leaders help us feel safer and better about ourselves. So we seek their company, and we’re willing to do things for them. When they say something we believe in, we feel better we’re not alone. When they say something funny, we smile. When they blog about something interesting, we think we can someday become as smart as them.

Followers create leaders, leaders don’t create themselves.

Leaders vs Managers

Most of the organizational pyramid is made of managers. Some have the ability to inspire people to achieve results (or in other words, make us feel better).

We call them leaders.  We’ll do a lot for them.

We call the others managers. For them, we’ll do just enough to keep our pay.

Why are there not enough leaders?

Much like in politics, this isn’t the right question…

Why aren’t there enough good managers? Those that make us feel better, give us autonomy to solve problems our way, the option to experiment and fail safely?

Simple: the pyramid system does not reward it.

If managers are punished for failures (getting bad reviews, not getting promoted, or fired) they won’t take risks, and therefore will not give their teams freedom. If they are constantly compared to their peers, they will not make the team feel better, but be worried about how they look instead.

Stop looking for leaders

Pyramids are a geometric marvel. The structure enforces stability.

I’m not calling to flatten pyramids, I’m aware that it’s not that easy, and frankly, not my goal. The goal is better organizational results. We get these by better management.

We can become better managers. When we do, then we start making changes in the organizations.

Then we lead.

The Management Paradox

Last time I’ve analyzed the manager’s job at a regular company. I looked at what responsibilities the manager has, and what can be delegated to the team. If enough people see through that, we’ll have a revolution in management. Obviously, we’re not there yet.

A pyramid scheme

How many flat organizations do you know? And how flat are they really? There is always someone in charge. The truth is, It’s been this way since the beginning of humanity. Some people lead and the rest get comfortable inside the system.

I’m not going to talk about leadership (yet). But most people have no incentive to rock the boat. If they have the passion and drive, they’ll rise to the top. Otherwise, they just strengthen the pyramid structure.

This comfort comes with a price – the lack of innovation and free thought. It’s a two player game: The management gets and maintains control. The workers do what they are told within the system. When they have had enough, they leave. Had enough of what? Dan Pink talks about three personal motivators: Mastery, autonomy and purpose. We leave when we’re tired of not getting enough of those three.

The manager paradox

We can’t really get rid of managers, because we’re hard-wired to fulfill the prophecy of hierarchical structures. And management persist the structure, while shooting itself in the foot. The only way to change an organization is from a management position.

What would a good manager do?

Modify the system in a way that people will feel able to achieve their motivations. We call this empowerment, although I really don’t like this word. You can’t teach empowerment. And it’s starts with the empowerer, but doesn’t result with an empowered (how much empowerment is enough?). Let’s talk about real actions.

We can, as managers, encourage experiments and embrace failures. We can create FedEx days. We can do less stupid things that drive people away, like this. Or this.

We can do a lot more, but the secret is already out: we need to be managers to drive change.

We can’t get rid of management. But we can surely replace bad with better.

Why Do We Need Managers Anyway?

http://www.dilbert.comI’ve been scratching my head lately regarding management, and what is it good for. So I’m probably going to spend some time on the subject in this here blog.

Long time readers of this blog (you poor guys, thanks for sticking with me!) know I’m a fan of Manager Tools. For the last seven years, these guys have been pumping out great advice, and even more important: actionable advice, for managers who want to become more effective. The need for this podcast, and their consulting services is apparent. Wherever you go you’ll find bad  managers. 

Actually, bad or good is not the correct term here – it’s effectiveness. Effective managers improve the effectiveness of their teams, and so the organization benefits. And Manager Tools helps in becoming more effective in the modern organization enterprise structure.

Let’s switch back to agile land for a minute. We know effective agile teams are self-organized. There is no manager role in a scrum team. We also know that this kind of team usually clashes with the rest of the organization.

Yet, assuming that the team is really effective without “proper management”, can we apply these to whole organizations? If most managers are not effective, and are really an obstacle, why do we need them?

What managers do

Here are responsibilities of managers. Responsibilities created by company structure, they can be changed in the structure changes. I don’t include technical responsibilities, like planning or budgeting. While mostly done by managers, they can be done by team  members.

  • Hiring and firing
  • Promoting team members
  • Coaching team members
  • Improve effectiveness
  • Protecting the team
  • Translating for the team
  • Solve conflicts
  • Make decisions

(I probably missed one or ten, but this mostly covers it for now).

Do these activities require a dedicated manager?

Hiring and firing seems like a managerial job. Yet in effective organizations the team is part of the process of interviewing and accepting the new guy/girl. They are also usually passive (sometimes more) players in ejecting him/her out. While these decisions don’t require a manager, organizational structure does. Hiring someone means money transfers. Firing him means legal stuff. The system requires authority of approval. Promotion is an organizational idiom, (in flat organizations, promotions make no sense) but it comes with money perks, so again we need approval authority.

Do teams need managers to improve? Jurgen Appelo thinks not, and I agree. Coaching can be effective, having the expertise. If the manager doesn’t have the knowledge she can’t coach. But she can make sure coaching occurs. This requires authority and follow-up. As we look to improve the performance of the team, the manager can create the conditions where effectiveness improves. The less expert she is, the team members rely on themselves to improve.

Protecting the team may sound patronizing, and as all agile practitioners know, is required. Protection from what? Other parts of the organization. Actually, protection is part of inter-organizational communication. It is more simple (although maybe not as effective) to communicate through small number of managers, rather than to everyone directly.  The manager at this point translates an organizational message to “what does it mean to us”. Anyone can do that – but it requires some recognition in the organization, with organizational know-how.

Finally, decision making and solving conflicts within the team stems directly from authority. Anyone can and does make decision everyday. We don’t need special people for that, yet we gravitate towards certain people that have these skills. We may even call them “leaders”.

So do we need managers?

We talk about managers, and how organizations are easy to manage, because it simplifies management. The word “management” is so engrossing, it’s easy to dump so much into it.

We can reduce the term “managers” to contact points with the rest of the organization. The teams can do the rest, and their effectiveness will probably improve.

Without managers, we’ll have anarchy. Which may not be that bad: Take a look at Fred George’s experience. He calls it “Programmer Anarchy”. It works.

Is anarchy for everyone? Can we get rid of managers altogether? Do we want to?

I’ll wait a posts more to get to that decision.

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