Leadership competences in Agility

The classical theory of leadership, honed over a century, has been enriched with new characteristics, techniques and insights with the rise of Agility. What is the difference between a manager and a leader? When and how is it recommended to lead teams with different levels of maturity? Which leadership competences, characteristics and mindsets help us to adapt to new challenges in our fast-paced world?

First, let’s be clear: What or who is the Leader? What is the difference between a leader and the role of what has been called a Manager?

If you’ve been paying some attention to this topic, you’ve probably already come across the caricatured, perhaps deliberately exaggerated, but profound series of images that have been all over social media. The series is a curved mirror that shows the differences between the image of the ‘Boss’, based on centuries-old habits and principles, and the idealised image of the ‘Leader’.

Főnök és vezető közötti különbségek (Boss vs Leader), vezetői kompetenciák szerint

Source: https://www.facebook.com/YukBisnisCom/. The full set of pictures is available here.

But is the difference between the two really so fundamental?

Basically, we can say that a Manager is someone who looks inward, implements plans, controls and coordinates, has subordinates and “serves” bosses, manages change, lives and focuses in the present, and is reactive. They have tasks, they assign tasks and hold them to account.

Leaders, on the other hand, look outwards, share a vision, empower and strengthen their people to help their team self-organise. They do not focus on tasks, but on people. They are not so much concerned with the present as with the future: they are proactive, their keywords are trust and development. Helping their team, are one of them and are a servant leader. They do their best to ensure that team members can carry out their tasks. They use influence and do not give orders. They do not avoid conflict but use it as a tool for development.1

Group and team development

Once we have clarified who is a Leader, it is important to clarify when leadership competencies and leadership practices are applicable. And the emphasis here is on when. Because it does matter what level of maturity the group we are leading is at. We talk about a group at the beginning of its development, and only later does it take on the characteristics of a cohesive team. 

The group development model formulated by Bruce Tuckman divides this process into 4+1 phases, each requiring a different leadership approach. These are2:

1. Forming: The group is still in its formative stages, with group members sizing each other up, looking for boundaries. Everyone is still showing their best face. Conflicts have not yet taken root. Everyone looks to the leader for dominance and guidance. The leader leads. There is little agreement on the goals that are not set by the leader. Individual roles and responsibilities are still unclear. The leader has many questions to answer, often skipping over processes.

2. Storming: “On stormy waters”. The group is on its way to becoming a team. The conflicts are growing in number and depth. The team may split into parts, cliques may start to form, which can increase the amplitude of conflicts. Emotional charges must be extracted or converted from the conflicts by the leader. Team members need to compromise. It is important that the focus of the team is directed by the leader towards the goals. These goals will become clearer to the team in the meantime, but uncertainties will also appear on the horizon. Team members are measuring themselves against each other and want to take up positions and build bridgeheads, both in terms of people, relationships and competences. A ‘pecking order’ begins to emerge within the team and from the perspective of the leader. The leader also faces many challenges and questioning. It is important for the leader to be supportive, to step back from direct leadership, to let the team find their own solutions, to help them to do so by guiding them in a less direct way than before.

3. Norming: Once out of the valley, the team starts to ‘work’ as a team: Agreements, consensus, group decisions are made. Roles and responsibilities are clarified and put in place. Cohesion between team members begins to develop, the team becomes a community, cliques are transformed into a community centred around social and workplace or non-work fun. The team develops its own operations, its own standards. The respect of the leader will also increase. The leader delegates more and more things at a deeper and deeper level. Team members have a general trust in each other and in the leader. In this phase, the leader uses the technique of facilitation: He tries to make the team’s life easier, to help it function, to find solutions, to solve problems.

4. Performing: By this time, it is clear to everyone why the team is here, what it does, how it does it and why it does it. The team members and the leader are beginning to understand each other in half-words. There is a high degree of autonomy in their work. Team members listen to each other. Goals and their achievement are reflected at the lowest levels in everyday life. The leader is expected to delegate, with less and less control. In this phase, the leader supervises, monitors, and only rarely intervenes, then he or she chooses coaching, leading, pointing, both at team and individual level, ‘steering the ship’. The leader trusts theteam and the team trusts the leader.

5. Adjourning: The time will come when the team will have achieved most of its goals. The project or product they’ve been working on runs out and either boredom or uncertainty sets in. The former can be dealt with by a little “shaking up” from the leader: setting new challenges, new goals for the team, e.g. introducing a new technology. The latter, uncertainty, can be compensated with new perspectives and faith in the future. This phase 5 is a new dimension to those that focus on the individual vulnerabilities and sensitivities of team members, in preparation for the coming to the fore of these weaknesses, in response to external stimuli or lack thereof.


Situational driving

Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of situational leadership styles3 is very similar to the leadership styles that can be applied in the phases of Tuckman’s group maturity model: from the initially distancing task management, to the explanatory, participative, and then increasingly delegating phases, where the team is typically autonomous and self-organising. 

The following leadership styles can be used:

1. Telling mode: Basically, the leader leads, directs. Similar to what is described in the Forming phase.

2. Selling mode: The leader takes a step back from tight control: he or she rather explains, coaches, guides, teaches.

3. Participating mode: The leader acts as a servant leader. Typically, he or she is more of a participant in the life of the team. Helps his team to find solutions (similar to Tuckman’s Norming phase)

4. Delegating mode: With varying degrees of delegation, the Leader gives more and more autonomy to their increasingly self-organising team. They monitor, supervise, and rarely intervene.


Theory ‘X’, Theory ‘Y’

Douglas McGregor developed this theory in the 1950s and 1960s, which modelled the counter-motivation of labour.

X elmélet, Y elmélet (a munkaerő ellentétes motivációja), vezetői kompetencia

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_X_and_Theory_Y#/

Theory X focuses on reward and punishment and supervised work. It employs strategies that are very commonly used in classical organisational functioning. Employees are driven by external motivations (few opportunities for autonomous decisions). As soon as supervision is weakened or removed, work is also impaired. This makes achieving results in creative and highly intellectual areas particularly difficult. 

In contrast to X, Theory Y emphasises work itself as a motivating factor. Even without excessive supervision, satisfaction drives the employee forward. It is the leader’s job to create and maintain the conditions that allow independent work.


Leadership mindsets as key defining characteristics

We are all different individuals with different leadership styles, perceptions and experiences. We have all experienced how differently people can react, interpret situations and make decisions in the same situations. This is also true for leaders.  Some are good characteristics, some are good mindsets, and some are counterproductive in terms of leadership. But which ones help you become a good leader and which ones hinder you?

In January 2020, Ryan Gottfredson and Chris Reina summarised4 these pairs of divergent mindsets in the Harvard Business Review.

Growth and Fixed Mindsets:

The Growth Mindset is the belief that people, including ourselves, believe in continuous improvement, that they can change their talents, abilities and intelligence.

In contrast, Fixed Mindset people do not believe that people can change their abilities and intelligence. They believe in their innate talent, which they see as permanent. 

Decades of research have shown that leaders with a Growth Mindset are mentally better equipped to take on challenges, take advantage of feedback, and apply the most effective problem-solving strategies. They provide developmental feedback to subordinates and are highly motivated and persistent in their efforts to achieve goals.

Learning and Performance Mindsets:

A leader with a Learning mindset is motivated when they or someone in their team develops, learns something new, improves competences.

With an Achievement Oriented Mindset, you get motivation from achieving some reward-related goal for yourself or others, or from avoiding things that are negatively charged. 

The Learner minded leader, compared to the Performance oriented leader, is more prepared mentally for continuous competence development, puts more effort into developing individual and team competences, applies learning strategies, and seeks feedback. They are also tenacious, adaptable, willing to collaborate, and inclined to perform at a higher level.

Deliberative and Implemental Mindsets:

Leaders with a Deliberative mindset are highly receptive to all incoming information, processing it to ensure that they judge situations correctly and act optimally. 

Leaders with an Implemental mindset tend to focus on implementing decisions, which isolates them from new, different information and ideas coming in.

Comparing the two, managers with a deliberative mindset tend to make better decisions because they are more impartial, more accurate and less biassed in their processing and decision-making.

Promotion and Preventive Mindsets:

Leaders with a Promotional mindset focus on goals, on profits. They set a specific goal or goals and prioritise progress towards them. 

But leaders with a Preventive Mindset focus on avoiding losses and preventing problems at all costs. 

Research shows that people with a Promotional mindset are more likely to think positively, are more open to change, are more likely to persevere despite challenges and setbacks, and show higher levels of performance and innovative behaviour compared to leaders with a Preventive mindset.

According to Gottfredson and Reina, the mindset and characteristics of a leader are crucial to the way they lead. A prime example is Satya Nadella, who joined Microsoft in 2014. Seeing that the company’s share price and market capitalisation (i.e. the number of shares multiplied by their current price) had remained unchanged since 2001, he made it his mission to transform the mindset of the company’s management, particularly the Growth mindset, as he wanted to see the giant company he was managing continue to grow. Which he has achieved, as Microsoft’s share price and market capitalisation have tripled under his leadership. He summarised his thoughts on this in his book, Hit Refresh.

So it is clear to see that the mindset characteristics of leaders have a fundamental impact on the whole of a company or organisation.

Fortunately, these characteristics can be improved. Of course, within our being, within our innate individual qualities and individuality, there are germs of one or another characteristic lying dormant, which we use consciously or unconsciously every day. But by recognising these, by consciously focusing on them, the characteristics can be shifted in some direction with the help of the right professional and executive coaching. By paying attention to the maturity and characteristics of our teams, we can fundamentally change and develop the kind of leaders we are.

By: Zoltán Schweinitzer, Sprint Consulting

1 Sprint Consulting Agile Leadership training
2 https://www.businessballs.com/team-management/tuckman-forming-storming-norming-performing-model/#toc-10
3 https://www.businessballs.com/team-management/tuckman-forming-storming-norming-performing-model/#toc-10
4 https://hbr.org/2020/01/to-be-a-great-leader-you-need-the-right-mindset