B.E.S.T. leadership

source: Tim Ottinger & Jeff Langr
font: Brown Bag Lunch

Do agile teams require leaders? Neither the agile manifesto nor its principles speak about leaders. Instead, the principles emphasize teams, and the penultimate principle says that the "best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams." A self-organizing team would seem to obviate the need for a leader, at least in the classic organization's notion of being "singular and fixed."

But all teams, agile or not, need leadership. "Self organizing" is tough, and it's often far more effective for someone to guide a team along at times, through its various challenges. This leadership comes from someone who at the moment has the experience, the clarity to help drive the best plan, and the people skills to make it happen. Such leaders can be external to the core team (such as the ever-present line manager), but a successful agile team accommodates more dynamic leadership. Leaders arise from within as needed. The team learns how to support individuals in this role, however temporary it might be.

A successful agile team embraces incrementalism for all activities required as part of software development: planning, requirements gathering, analysis, testing, design, coding, review, and delivery. Leadership is but one more team activity that is best executed on an incremental and continual basis. At times an agile team member may fulfill the role of leader for perhaps a couple minutes.

Effective leadership requires four values that agile team members should also hold dear:

  • Benevolence: The team must trust that their leader won't throw them individually or collectively under a bus, that the team's achievements will not be used against them, and that their faults will not be grist for public humiliation. A benevolent leader is not a pushover, but even in confrontation, his interest is in improving the team and its members.
  • Effectiveness: If one cannot get things done, one cannot lead others. A recent study shows that the greatest motivator for "working people" is the ability to make progress. An effective leader will help make it possible for the team to make real progress every day. Within a team, the person who knows how to get started often emerges as a leader; this leader must also know how to keep moving forward when others would be blocked.
  • Strength: A leader does not lose her head in a crisis. A leader's infrequent NO carries weight. She does not beat up on her inferiors in order to look tough. If necessary, a strong, benevolent leader will remove some people for the good of the rest of the team. She provides feedback appropriately, instead of sweeping things under the rug or embarrassing team members with needless public confrontation. (Remember the old adage, "praise in public, punish in private.") Respect is best earned, not extorted.
  • Temporariness*: A good leader does not install himself as a fixture in the company or team by building reliance on his personality and special knowledge. Knowing that success may lead him to new places, he is always helping others understand what it will take to replace his leadership. His actions when he is present will allow the team to continue successfully when he is absent.
When we find these four traits active in one person, we are looking at potentially legendary leaders. As followers, we need to support and encourage our best leaders and take pride in their work. As managers, we need to give them additional respect, autonomy, and possibly compensation. As clients, we should listen more carefully to such leaders and heed their warnings and advice. As team members, we should cultivate these four qualities in ourselves so that we may lead when we are called upon.

* "Temporariness" is a real word. We looked it up.

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