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Rethink Leadership: Being Ordinary to Accomplish Extraordinary Results

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Ordinariness in leadership can help us to accomplish extraordinary results, argues agile/lean coach Katherine Kirk. Several more people have explored approaches that suggest to rethink leadership and go back to behaviour basics for leading people. Although these approaches are about small ordinary things, the suggestion is that their effect may cause a revolution in the way organizations are being managed.

Katherine Kirk presented lead the revolution by being ordinary earlier this year at the QCon London 2016 conference where she explored how important being ordinary is when it comes to modern leadership. A sum-up of what she presented is described below.

Kirk started her talk by saying that she was surprised to see ordinary people behaving badly when they moved to higher management levels. Despite having good intentions, there seemed to be some twist that made them act this way:

I came to think that perhaps we have an outdated leadership model and we’re actually trying to make this outdated leadership model work and its doing us more harm than good, because the context itself has changed.

Looking for a way to find a solution, Kirk referred to Buddhist philosophy and how it values ordinary behaviours which can eventually output extraordinary change. She stated that "in this critical time, leadership needs a revolution. A key to this is to resist ego and focus on being ordinary."

In an earlier interview about the antimatter principle. Bob Marshall argued that leaders should attend to the needs of people. When asked why people wouldn’t take on this basic behaviour more often he answered:

We have been living in what Walter Wink calls a "Domination System" for the best part of 8,000 years. This system, for various reasons, educates and conditions us to believe in the Myth of Redemptive Violence - that is, in the belief that violence is the natural and effective way to get what we want. It’s this system that lies at the root of the dehumanised and dehumanising workplaces so many folks have to suffer on a daily basis. And, incidentally, in the belief that the workplace is "no place for feelings, emotions and personal needs".

Marshall explains that it takes a deeper understanding of the basics of how people behave and a different mindset and attitude change to change leadership in organizations:

There’s a lot of interest at the moment in how to create work environments which actively support collaborative knowledge-work, as opposed to the much more widespread environments which suck the life and creativity out of people. Until we better understand people and psychology, and actively apply that new knowledge, we’re not going to make much progress in that direction, I’m afraid. The Antimatter Principle sums up in one very simple sentence what we need to do. Attend to folks’ needs. It sounds too simple to be useful. But that’s the power of the thing. By placing this principle at the heart of our organisations, we could build a world where people matter, where joyful workplaces are the norm, and where little of folks’ natural talents and enthusiasms go to waste.

According to Kirk, reflecting Buddhist theory, the three characteristics of our industry are:

  • Everything is in a constant state of change
  • We need to collaborate (it’s not about "the me" due to interdependency)
  • We will always deal with dissatisfaction

Kirk highlights the need for calm ordinariness in modern leadership by emphasising how the recent demand for high-octane collaborative working (generated by these characteristics of our industry) brings about stressful responses and inadvertently scuppers effectiveness in both leaders and teams.

To that point she postulates that if we imagine that delivery cadence in industry has risen approximately from once every 10 years in 1980 to multiple times per day in 2015, then as delivery frequency increases, the collaboration rate and the number of interactions massively increase. And if we assume that there are at least three roles involved in a delivery, then a yearly delivery means a minimum three interactions per year. So, seven deliveries per day implies that there could be something like 1,344 deliveries in a year with minimum 4,032 interactions.

Adding to this, every time we deliver, we get a "consequence". Consequences expose things like bad decision making. With continuous delivery, we have many consequences – and if there has been a lot of bad decision making without learning loops this can bring shame and secrecy. Added to this, because continuous collaboration is people interacting with people, when a high level of interaction is not managed properly, it can lead to exhaustion, said Kirk. She quoted Harvard Business Review: "60% employees now consult with at least 10 colleagues each day just to get jobs done" and "30% must engage 20 or more".

In light of this, she points out that leaders need to find effective ways to handle continuousness and "collaboration fatigue"– and suggests that shifting themselves and their teams from a sprinting mindset (push hard to do short term big bang goals) to a marathon mindset (work harmoniously together to be consistently effective toward short and long term goals) could help – because in this day and age, success requires embracing long term collaboration, welcoming being wrong, and appreciating feedback.

In the context of the three characteristics of industry she refers to, Kirk also encourages leaders to try to value and expand their creative thinking abilities (she calls this 360 thinking) to help them solve and deal with complex, ever changing contexts more effectively, explaining that narrow viewpoints and simplified solutions ("primary thinking") can cause vital data and context to be missed. She points out that there is often overwhelming pressure for leaders to simplify and push hard to be exceptional but that in our new environment of constant change, this can bring unwanted results.

Kirk reiterates that currently, most managers mimic behaviour from colleagues or take examples from society to act and take decisions. But we are using outdated leadership model within a context of technology that has changed everything. Collaboration can evolve, but the three characteristics of our industry will continue. We have to tackle continuous change, interdependency and dissatisfaction by adopting a mindset that helps us decide how we want to deal with difficulties and decisions. She points out that even if we are not in control, we can still affect the situation by how we react.

One leadership approach often used with agile teams is servant leadership. Johanna Rothman explored what to look for in a servant leader:

One of the major qualities of a servant leader is that he or she enjoys working with people. Servant leaders serve the people on the project. They also serve the people in the organization.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed Tomasz Wykowski about what is blocking adoption of servant leadership. He explained that with servant leadership leaders behave ordinary by respecting people and listening to understand their needs:

The basic paradigm that Servant Leadership should start with is "I’m OK – you’re OK". You get what you’re giving. If you want people to trust you, you need to trust them first. If you want them to behave as adults, you need to treat them as adults first. And remember, it’s ok to be different, have different opinions, goals and values. Respect people. Do not judge them, but listen to what they’re saying and why.

We need a new management mindset with a different approach to managing people. Kirk suggested a few techniques that could help managers to stop over-trying to get control or be perfect, accept that they are not the expert and instead, embrace collaboration and continuousness.

The key practices she recommends to help with this on a personal level for leadership are:

  1. Gratitude methodologies
  2. Identifying and utilising good decision making models
  3. Seeking truth with calm, open curiosity
  4. Identifying and ridding bias where possible
  5. And finally, coming from a position of safety from within rather than looking outside for comfort

In summary, Kirk reiterated that we need leaders to inspire and challenge us, give context, break deadlocks, and to help us focus. She gave the following examples for leaders to behave in ordinary ways that could give extraordinary results:

  • If you don’t have answers, listen and give feedback to the people that you are working with to help them come up with the answers with you
  • When you are not an expert, ask, learn and collate information so that people can interact toward a solution more effectively
  • If you are not the best person in the room, just join in and help facilitate insight in others

Kirk concluded by saying that by being ordinary and working together, you can do extraordinary things, and that, she emphasises, is a revolution.

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