Workshop: What kind of “leadership” do we really need more of?

Background: Why we ran the workshop

A few years ago my friend and erstwhile Redgater, Elizabeth Ayer, and I were pondering how to challenge a blinkered view of “leadership” that we were becoming increasingly aware of.

Our organisation was wrestling with a perceived lack of leaders in and around our development teams. The symptoms of this ailment, apparently, were a lack of accountability when things were not going well, a trusted leader bottleneck for cross-cutting initiatives (“we can’t kick this project off… who’d lead it?!”) and a sizeable chasm between company strategy and the actual work people were doing. However, the company’s hive mind hankered for more leaders to step-up, grab the reins, inspire the troops and make sh*t happen.

The company was growing and we could see the limitation of this top-down view of leadership. For a start, it was reliant on hiring a expanding number of always-right-super-hero generals. More importantly though, anointing the few to lead the many restricted collaborative decision-making and eroded empowerment. Put simply, it could not scale and it was counter productive.

Meanwhile, many people in the organisation who were in the throng being looked at to step-up and lead, felt that this was beyond their capabilities or was generally an unattractive proposition. Our hypothesis, again, was that they were unconsciously subscribing to a limited view of leadership, the formation of which lay in society’s fascination for “strong”, directive leaders. They felt they were not like those people, nor would they ever want to be. In fact, we argued that in many cases the behaviours synonymous with these strong leaders would not be fit for purpose if applied writ large to a development organisation full of smart people who are best motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose! Instead, we wanted to encourage people throughout the organisation to take a more enabling and collaborative approach to leadership, influencing each other in ways that better reflected our values and goals, while growing their own capabilities.

So, to encourage people in our organisation to examine their views of leadership and challenge them to identify how and where they could influence or lead others I put together a short workshop to run at our (now annual) internal tech conference, Level Up. I focussed that first workshop on exploring behaviours Redgater felt we needed to nurture in pursuit of our mission to scale our product development organisation. Here’s a write up of the subject and what we discovered.

6. Underway (2)
The workshop in full flow

Below, is a guide on how to run a more generic version of the workshop. Let me know if it’s useful.

How to run the workshop 

What to tell attendees about the workshop beforehand

Tell them that we’ll talk about various leadership types or styles we are already aware of and instinctively admire. We’ll examine what behaviours we expect from those cannocial styles and whether they are always healthy. We’ll then explore which leadership behaviours become more important in pursuit of our team and/or company goals (e.g. to “grow grow grow”) and identify how we can each deliberately develop those behaviours irrespective of our roles or job titles.

How long will it take?

The workshop fits at a squeeze into 60 minutes (see timing in the plan below), but if you fancy a more comfortable time as facilitator and want to allow more time for discussion, book a room for 90 minutes.

What do you need to prepare?

Set-up the room cabaret-style seating. Tables of 6-8 are ideal. You’ll need the following materials for the session:

  • Flipchart and pen at the front of the room for sharing key insights
  • An image/illustration of some key cultural leadership types (for example, the superhero, the inspirational thought-leader or the driven-visionary)
  • An articulation of the current team/company goals – i.e. the context for the discussion on leadership behaviours we need more of
  • Loads of post-its and pens for each group
  • A set of leadership behaviour cards (just leader-y adjectives written onto index cards) for each table/group. See the end of this post for the adjectives I used.
  • Three index cards with “High”, “Medium” and “Low” written on them for each table. Use a different colour to the behaviour cards. These will be used to help with a card sorting exercise.

What’s the plan?

1. Welcome (1 min)

  • Encourage people to sit in groups of 6-8.
  • Introduce the subject of the workshop.
  • Explain any usual workshop working agreements.

2. Open up the subject of leadership and break the ice (8 mins)

  • Ask people to think about a great leader they admire outside of work and why they admire them (30 seconds)
  • Ask each person to share with their small groups (3 mins
  • Debrief the activity (3 mins). Ask for a few examples of favourite leaders. Then talk about:
    • There are lots of great leaders. But most, I suspect fit into one of 3 categories:
      1. Driven-visionary
      2. Inspirational-thought-leader
      3. Day-saving-superhero
    • We often look at these as the only option for great leaders and we know we can’t all be one of these types – and they are a stereotype.
    • Each of those leaders has a collection of skills and behaviours, some of those would be useful for us and some not. For example, if we were all Churchill-like, then the world would be a weird place.
    • ‘Leading’ is ‘influencing; guiding in direction, course, action, opinion.
    • But there are a load of behaviours and attitudes that make up “leadership” and I genuinely believe we can all nurture those characteristics and set an example to those around us. I.e. we can all lead. And this is what the rest of this session is about
1. flip chart content
Framing the discussions

3. Activity – What’s a great leader like? (20 mins)

  • Hand out a deck of leadership behaviour cards and High/Medium/Low prioritisation cards to each group.
  • Ask the groups to place the priority cards on the table in order, spread apart as if to label an imaginary linear chart on the table.
  • Ask the groups to place their behaviour cards in priority order against this High/Medium/Low continuum for behaviours of a great leader. The twist is you are only going to give them 30 seconds to do this! Yes, 30 seconds. the idea is to do it instinctively.
  • Clarify that you expect you to use all three categories! It won’t be perfect – you’ll disagree, ignore that and do it quickly! Go!
  • 30 seconds later, each group have a straw man prioritisation to work from. Now ask them to take it in turns to move a single card where they personally disagree with the placing on the priority scale. They can move it up or down they scale. No-one can veto the move, you just have to explain why you think it should move and move it. The only other rule on what you can move is that you are not allow to move the card that was moved by the previous person.
  • Give the sub groups 10 mins to take it in turns moving cards. Take as many turns as you can fit in that time or until the moves dry-up!
  • Debrief the activity with the whole group. Ask people:
    • What did they notice? What was surprising? What areas did you all agree on quickly and where did you disagree a lot? Were there any aha moments?
    • To sum up, and if it has not been raised as an insight already, raise that this was a difficult task because I just asked for what are the important behaviours for generic “great leader”. I did not clarify the context for the great leader. What are they leading towards? Who are they leading towards it? What are the obstacles or opportunities in their path . Surely this information will affect what characteristics and behaviours are most important in order for a leader to be great.
6. Yellow Team in action
Prioritizing leadership behaviours

4. Activity – What kind of leadership do we need? (20 mins)

  • Talk about your organisation’s context. What are your goals, who is in the organisation, what obstacles and opportunities are there?
  • As an example, in our case we talk about scaling Redgate:
    • We wanted to be fit to scale up, as called out in our 2018 objectives.
    • We wanted our scaling to reflect Redgate’s values. Values like doing our best work in teams, being ingeniously simple or being reasonable with one another. We felt that meant that the scaling tools of ubiquitous, homogenous process, of tightly defined authority and fungible resource management don’t fit us
    • Our premise was that, in order to scale, we need capability throughout the organisation. We need to be taking good decisions at every level, as close to the detail of the work as possible.
  • Now you ask the groups to repeat the earlier card sorting task, but with our organisation context in mind. Ask sub-groups to, again, take it in turns to move one card on the priority scale up or down. Say why and move it.
  • Add one new rule, you can only have 5 cards/behaviours in the High priority group!
  • Again give the sub groups 10 mins to take it in turns moving cards. Take as many turns as you can fit in that time or until the moves dry-up!
  • Debrief the activity with the whole group. Ask people:
    • Did they notice a difference? What was surprising? What behaviours moved a lot? Were there any aha moments?
    • Ask each group shares their top 5. Is there a pattern? If so, record the key common/key behaviours on the flipchart at the front.

5. Activity – What can we all do to lead? (10 mins)

  • Now you are going to ask each person to reflect personally on the high priority behaviours in their groups.
  • Ask each individual think about what they personally can do to set a good example in one or more of the high priority behaviours. This could be something they do themselves to amplify the behaviour or to nurture the behaviour in others. Use the post-its to record 3-4 ideas. Give them 4 mins to do this.
  • Give examples if needed. You could:Ask your colleagues what they think before telling them your idea.
    • Openly admit your own mistakes and weaknesses
    • At a stand-up, when you are worried about something – speak up when you could stay quiet.
  • Ask people to share their actions quickly in their sub groups.
  • Explain that we won’t be recording these suggested actions or doing anything to make these a formal commitment. These personal action ideas are just that, personal – but wouldn’t it be awesome if we each took one of those ideas back with us to the office and gave it a go?
4. What can I do in my role to nuture scaling leadership behaviours - Yellow Team
Exploring how we can each do to nurture or amplify these key behaviours

6. Close the workshop (1 min)

    • Thank everyone for coming and for being open with their views on leadership. Encourage them to take their action post-it notes with them.
    • Use your usual feedback gathering mechanism that people can engage with on the way out of the room (I like a Helped/Hindered/Hypotheses post it note board) to find out what worked and how you could improve the workshop next time.

Appendix: Leadership behaviours cards

2. Leadership behaviours important for scaling Redgate - Blue Team
Our deck of leadership behaviour cards

Write these on index cards (enough for a deck per group) or make up your own:

  • Collaborative
  • Courageous
  • Commitment to high standards
  • Visionary
  • Flexible
  • Empathic
  • Decisive
  • Consistent
  • Curious
  • Stretching
  • Confidence
  • Driven
  • Inspirational
  • Accountable
  • Enforces accountability
  • Creates clarity
  • Grows others
  • Positive
  • Critical
  • Heroic
  • Humble
  • Expertise
  • Open
  • Empowering
  • Integrity
  • Communicative
  • Innovative


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