A More Sophisticated Idea of What Leadership Is

Tim Brown gives a great quote in a recent HBR podcast…
“traditional forms of leadership that have been communicated to us from the youngest age through media … is that leadership is all about leading from the front. It’s all about being the person with the smartest ideas, being the person who makes all the decisions, being at the top of some kind of pyramidal-shaped hierarchy… unlocking creativity in an organization requires a more sophisticated idea of what leadership is.” – Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO
An agile organization needs to understand this more sophisticated idea.  The leaders need to practice it and team members need to embrace and expect it.
The Energy Project proceeds to tell us what attributes great creative leaders have and how they link up as characteristics.  Great leaders are:
  • Encouraging, positive, and smart, creating the kind of interpersonal environment that supports creative risk taking
  • Inspiring, visionary, and decisive, modeling the kind of creative drive that team members need to find new solutions
  • Kind and fair, treating team members with the trust and empathy fellow human beings deserve
  • Calm and supportive, showing team members that feedback and iteration are the best ways to improve solutions
Sophisticated leadership is about creating a coaching mentality for both the leader and the team members.  HBR reminds us that the age of heroic leadership is quickly fading in the face of the move to knowledge work and agile teams.  They show three different kinds of leadership in the era of heroic leadership and the era of post-heroic leadership.  Note that the heroic leader types are all positive kinds of roles, just unsuited to the current realities of creative, agile work.
Heroic types:
  • Expert – domain knowledge is the basis for authority
  • Trainer – process and process improvement knowledge is the basis for authority
  • Evangelist – vision is the basis for authority
Post-heroic types:
  • Coach – helps others find their own answers
  • Mentor – tolerance for mistakes in the short term while helping others grow in the long term
  • Motivator – help others identify and pursue their own vision
Perhaps the most striking similarity is the internal focus of the traditional leaders and heroic leaders vs. the outward focus of post-heroic leaders and the attributes of creative leaders.  If your agile process is not producing the results you expect, perhaps some introspection from the leadership would help.

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