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6 Ways to Bring Humility to Your Agile Leadership Style

Becoming a better servant

15 June 2016

Brian Milner
Scrum 360


A few months ago, I watched Mike Cohn's excellent presentation titled "Let Go of Knowing" for the first time. Since then, I've gone back and rewatched it several more times. I highly encourage you to watch it as well. It's free at frontrowagile.com and only takes about an hour to get through. There's no spectacular new technique in it or amazing new tactic for teaching Scrum. It is a simple reminder that many Agile leaders, myself included, forget all too often: You might be wrong.

When I attend any gathering of my peers in the Scrum community, there is usually a vocal group among them that is all too anxious to point out their knowledge of all things Agile and, more specifically, how some of you out there (not me, of course) are doing things the wrong way. Think back to your last local Scrum meet-up or even the last Global Gathering® you attended. If the topic of SAFe came up, you likely heard groans, boos, or hisses. Why? Because these individuals believe they know for certain that SAFe is the wrong way to scale Agile. I'm not a huge SAFe proponent, but I have taken their scaled Agile training course and it has very valid portions. In fact, there are concepts that are very similar to other frameworks, such as LeSS, DaD, or even the Spotify model.

Since Agile is a set of principles and is more concerned with mindset than an actual set of practices, I began to think about the mindset behind such situations and concluded that what is missing in these cases is humility. It isn't a sexy term, but I believe humility is a quality essential to becoming a true servant leader. Humility says that you don't consider yourself to be higher than your coworkers or students. It says that you aren't looking for privilege or recognition for yourself. It says you are willing to put aside these things to achieve the team goal.

John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin's solid article "Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader" in the Harvard Business Review discusses just this and has come up with six principles for developing humility as a leader. I found these relevant to how we view Agile leadership. In the same spirit, I thought I'd offer my six principles for developing humility as an Agile leader.
 

1. Accept that you could be wrong

Again, see Mike Cohn's presentation. Recognize that we are constantly inspecting and adapting. That's one reason I really enjoy working with Scrum: It's a living, breathing process that is always in search of improvement. Just look at the recent discussions about estimates in Agile, for an example. This means you could be wrong about something you are certain about now. That's OK. Learn from it and adapt.

There are no sacred cows here. If you find someone else is doing something in a way that works better, co-opt it and move on. It's important to understand, though, that this means something you are sure of today might be considered wrong tomorrow.
 

2. Let the team's success be your primary measure of success

One of the things that makes Agile so different from other processes is that the focus is shifted from individuals to the team. Why should we, as Agile leaders, become self-centered and focus on ourselves? Our contributions matter only if the teams we coach succeed. If they are failing, we are failing. This just cements the concept of servant leadership for us, in that we must do everything we can to serve our teams and help them succeed.
 

3. Be open to trying different approaches

You might be the world's foremost expert on Agile, able to answer any hypothetical as clearly as an Agile Manifesto co-signer. Guess what, though? You are no longer working with hypotheticals. Given that, you might need to be flexible about trying new things. Some of these might just go against what you know to be true. As long as you are inspecting and adapting along the way, you can keep what works and throw out what doesn't. If your team wants to try something, and they all feel it would improve things, give it a shot!
 

4. Embrace your role as a servant

Servant leadership is a term that gets thrown out there so much, it's likely it has lost meaning for you. Think of it this way: You know the people who clean your office each night or clean your office bathrooms? They are serving your team. How about the persons who make sure there's coffee? Servants.

These people aren't looking for thanks for what they do. They do it because it's needed, and it's their job. What are you doing to serve your teams? Take some time to brainstorm what you can do to serve your team. Make time to serve them, even in small ways. They do the work. We are only there to help that process.
 

5. Pay attention to how you coach

This is key. Think about how you are training, mentoring, and coaching your teams. Do your conversations come off as confrontational? Are you teaching at people rather than with them? This can often be as simple as adjusting the point of view you use when you are coaching. Rather than saying, "Do it this way," try "What I've seen work better is . . . " or "Some teams find it easier/better to . . . " It's a small change, but it shows that you don't consider yourself better.
 

6. Always give credit to your teams

Our corporate culture of annual performance reviews has conditioned us to toot our own horns. We've become accustomed to keeping track of our successes so that we can call on them later to show our worth to the company. I would suggest that this conditioning eats away at how we view our role as Agile leaders.

What if, instead, we bragged about how great our teams are? What if our reviews were more about team accomplishments than personal ones? If you were your manager, wouldn't that be more important to you? Why, then, do we feel the need to take credit? Again, the team actually does the work. Give the team the credit for their accomplishments. It's much better to have someone see your team's successes and attribute them to your support than to have them think you are trying to steal credit for their work.

As with everything in Agile, it's more about the mindset than any particular rule. I would suggest only that we could all, myself included, use a much heavier dose of humility in how we lead.

But, of course, I could be wrong.
 

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



Article Rating

Current rating: 4.9 (8 ratings)

Comments

Mike Cohn, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 6/15/2016 11:04:28 AM
Excellent article, Brian. I love your six principles. I'm about to do a self-assessment and see how I'm doing at each. I'll definitely change some behaviors as a result of this. Thanks for writing it.
Brian Milner, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/15/2016 11:09:27 AM
Thanks, Mike! Hope it honored the spirit of your presentation. As I mentioned to you, thank you for the "Let Go of Knowing" presentation as that is what started me thinking about doing this article in the first place.
Sureshbabu Thadikamalla, CSP,CSM, 6/20/2016 7:43:23 AM
Excellent Article.
Colin Sweetman, CSM, 6/22/2016 7:02:24 AM
Very good.

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