A couple of years ago I was attending the course “Secrets of Agile Teamwork – Beyond Technical Skills” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It was a brilliant course, and so far, I have had more use of it than any other course I have attended or book I have read. In the special Esther-and-Diana-style (you must try it if you get the chance), we learned about communication, conflict, feedback, change and leadership. We also learned a lot about ourselves from reflecting over how we behaved in different situations. Highly recommended!
One section in the course was “Team Leadership Activities” and that would prove a real eye-opener to me. It is a great tool to view a team through, to understand what makes a team move forward towards their goal and how you can contribute.
[spoiler alert: this will reveal the goal of one of the exercises in the course]
Early in the course, the class was assigned a task: Sort a zillion playing cards of different shapes, sizes and types. We should complete the task together as a group, and so we did (to the surprise of Esther and Diana, if I recall correctly).
Afterwards, we were asked what we did to make the group reach its goal. We jotted down our actions on post-its. It was obvious things like “Sorting cards” and “Clarifying requirements”, but also things like “Step back and get an overview”. We were then asked to place these post-its under some categories:
- Instructor – coaches others
- Follower – provides encouragement, conforms to agreements
- Pioneer – looks for new ideas and ways
- Influencer – initiates team culture
- Commentator – puts in context
- Coordinator – aligns team activities
- Peacemaker – works for harmony and common ground
- Promoter – supports quieter team members
- Critic – looks for risks and weaknesses
- Gatekeeper – maintains working agreements
- Reviewer – assure meeting of acceptance criteria
- Monitor – maintains team relationships
- Devils advocate – deliberately seeks other views
These are the Team Leadership Roles. They can be further categorized into the activities Direction (1-4), Guidance (5-8) and Evaluation (9-13).
Up until that moment I had defined leadership in terms of taking the lead. Esther and Diana re-defined leadership as making a group reach its goals. This means that you can take leadership responsibility for your team and your goals even when you support another persons ideas, or when you play the Devils advocate, or when you negotiate a compromise (Peacemaker).
Over time in a successful team these roles must be filled, and anyone can fill a role, they are not bound to a specific individual. It is not even desirable that a single person fills the same role time and time again, since after a while, people will stop listening. An example of this is if the same person plays the Devils advocate too many times, he or she will just be considered negative in general.
It is also important to actively let people shift roles, e.g. the promoter can help a follower to take on an influencer role if that is what he/she would like to try.
I would say that this is an essential part of modern leadership. It has made me more comfortable in day-to-day team work because I can just support another idea and still know I practice leadership. In the same way, we all can practice good leadership in our own way, because we are all leaders. You are a leader.