How do you scale leadership?

How do you go about increasing leadership throughout an organisation? Something so many companies would dearly love to do. Perhaps you could anoint the people who are best at their narrowly-defined tasks as thought leaders? You could make public speaking training mandatory? Maybe you could study high-achieving leaders like Steve Jobs, Brian Clough or Barack Obama and apply their principles more widely? Or just tell people to be more leader-y, dammit?!?

First, I think you need to think carefully about what you mean by “leadership” and what behaviours you need more of…

What makes a great leader?

Think of a great leader you admire. You can choose anyone from the entirety of human existence. That’s a pretty big cohort, so take a minute to consider the candidates.

OK, so with that leader in mind, consider the leadership behaviours or attributes that person embodies. Now ask yourself if those behaviours are the characteristics you need now in your environment, with your goals ahead of you. They may not be.

For instance, I admire Brian Clough for what he achieved at a football club close to my heart. And for his principled approach to the game, his confidence and his humour. In fact, I have written a post about what software development team leaders could learn from him. However, Clough was also autocratic, stubborn and enigmatic. These are values that would be caustic in the environment in which I work.

Brian Clough

Brian Clough: A great leader?

Often, when asked to visualise or pick-out a memorable “leader” we reach for one of a few types; the superhero, the inspirational thought-leader or the driven-visionary. Someone who swoops in to save the day because they are AWESOME at EVERYTHING. Someone with a powerful intellect able to inspire through the clarity and genius of their ideas. Or someone who has an all-encompassing vision of the future and directs their acolytes toward making that dream a reality.

It could be that those might be exactly the leadership qualities a group desperately needs given their situation and goals; if they are, say, tackling a life or death situation on an operating table, storming a military target or starting a new business or a social movement. However, I would argue that in many cases, those leadership styles are not the most effective. In fact, those styles can do unintended harm.

And yet, when we long for more leadership or imagine our future selves as great leaders, we naturally think of these three types. Couple that with a personal belief that the behaviours those types embody will forever be beyond our reach, because of personality, preference or role and we end up feeling we are unable to become “leaders”.

There are many styles of leadership; from commanders to collaborators, from experts to empaths. Those styles are made up of a legion of behaviours that can each be classed as leading. And many of those behaviours are within our reach, no matter what role we have. Each behaviour has its benefits and potential drawbacks, so each is more or less attractive for a given situation.

What is our situation at Redgate?

Redgate, my employer, wants to grow. So, the development organisation needs to be ready to scale-up. Our premise is that, to scale, we shouldn’t be dependent on a few brilliant individuals. We need capability throughout the organisation. We don’t want people at the “top” taking all the decisions because that doesn’t scale; individual managers won’t be able to be experts on everything that is going on, they’ll make decisions based on abstract information whilst simultaneously becoming a crutch for their people and restricting their personal growth. Instead, we need to be taking good decisions at every level in the organisation, as close to the detail of the work as possible.

Furthermore, we want our scaling to reflect Redgate’s values. Values like doing our best work in teams, building ingeniously simple software or being reasonable with one another. I think that means that the scaling tools of ubiquitous, homogenous process, of tightly defined authority and fungible resource management don’t fit us. That’s why you’ll never see the dreaded Scaled Agile Framework unveiled at Redgate Towers.

We don’t want a few people to hold everyone else accountable; it is disempowering and there are not enough hours in the day anyway. Another of Redgate’s values is “transparency helps us continually improve”. Given those beliefs, we want to create an environment when we can openly enquire about each other’s work, without prejudice or fear causing offense.

As we look to scale, we don’t want experienced people who embody Redgate’s culture to leave the organisation. We need them to stay, develop great careers here and increase the capability of those around them.

So, with the above in mind, here’s the my take on the leadership behaviours I think everyone in the development organisation should be deliberately aiming for to meet that challenge:

  • Be accountable and responsible. Take ownership of tasks from discovery to completion. Explicitly set and manage the expectations of others – calling out if you can’t deliver what you’d hoped to.
  • Encourage clarity. Help make goals clear and keep them as a focus. Summarise conversations and signpost decisions to help your group understand their progress.
  • Favour collaboration. Engage with others for their opinions and ideas in order to make the best decision possible and build engagement. Be wary of falling in love with your own ideas; you could be wrong. Be ready to change your mind based on feedback from others or group insight.
  • Enable others. Help your colleagues make better decisions, rather than taking decisions yourself. Ask your colleagues what they think before telling them your idea. Encourage and support others to learn and improve. Respectfully deliver constructive feedback so people know where they could improve without feeling beaten-up. Be curious and ask questions, not to challenge and correct, but to discover and encourage new perspectives.
  • Be courageous. Speak up, when you could stay quiet. Openly admit your own mistakes and weaknesses, focussing on how to improve next time. Give people freedom to take decisions and safety to learn and recover from mistakes – doing that takes guts.

These are behaviours that I think will help make us fit to scale in a way that is congruent with Redgate’s values and that I believe we can all exhibit in our day-to-day work. If our people could each start becoming role models for a specific behaviour then, hopefully, they will influence other people to follow suit. Which in-a-nutshell is what leadership is about; influencing others.

1. flip chart content
Guidance from a workshop exploring scaling leadership at Redgate

I have run a couple of workshops on scaling leadership in recent months. The above behaviours align with those called out by groups in those sessions. However, there were other characteristics also suggested that could be similarly important for us to nurture; empathy, an aptitude for taking decisions, a commitment to high standards and an ability inspire others. They are certainly attributes that would contribute to building capability and increasing the resilience of our organisation. They are also skills that individuals can work on, regardless of role or responsibility. If that happens then, as a whole, the organisation will have more of the leadership behaviours it really needs.

For me, showing leadership is not about being the next Steve Jobs, Brian Clough or Barack Obama. It’s about having a positive influence on those around you. And great leadership is about extolling the behaviours that are important in your group’s situation and for the challenges ahead.

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