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Managing to Lead

Tom Churchwell
Reading: Managing to Lead

Every week I have to get ready for my call with my coach and it is unlike almost everything else I do. Every other conversation I have is, if not predictable, then at least familiar territory. Not so with my coach; the conversation can quickly go somewhere unexpected and nearly always does. The discovery is usually fun and I come away feeling energized with a new perspective.

I am reminded every time I’m preparing, of the Zen Master and the teacup.  As the story goes, a successful businessman seeks wisdom from a Zen Master who then pours tea for him until it overflows and spills on his suit. The man complains, and then the master replies that his mind too is full like the teacup with all that he thinks he already knows. He is admonished and is told he must leave and not return until he can empty his mind and make room for wisdom.

Managing to Lead

I’ve known my coach for many years…almost two decades…and you might think the challenge of emptying my cup would get easier, but it doesn’t. The rituals help, and the familiarity with my coach helps, as does his natural way of bringing some sense of ease and acceptance to even the most challenging life conversations. But almost like meditating, working towards an empty cup is a shift in thinking that always feels new again.

As an agile coach, I am obliged to pay closer attention. I have empathy for the people I am working with because I know how disorienting it can feel to continually be learning something new. The skill of agility is far more than just the rituals of agile. And similarly, servant leadership in particular is more about who we are for other people than it is about management rituals like status reports. There is far more to being agile than methodology or process.

The way we learn it is completely different too. Every day is learning and all the while, every day is also important to successful team delivery. It seems like there are never any breaks in the action. It is truly challenging and so much more than the kind of learning we all did in school. It is not a matter of learning something just in order to pass a test, or learning some skill…calculus??…that I may or may not use some day. It is something we need to learn and apply while we are learning it. It is learning that matters right here, right now, every day.

“Certainty is not proof of truth.”

–  Maturana & Varela Tree of Knowledge

Some people have more of a challenge than others. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the more successful the person, the more often they have trouble. In my many years as an agile coach, I’ve heard countless times “that won’t work here”, only to see it in successful practice 6 months or a year later. Many of the skills of an effective servant leader fly in the face of traditional management. Seasoned managers in particular seem to have a tough time acquiring this new skill of being open to possibilities.

Before Industrialization there was craftsmanship and skill and dedication to the unique needs of each customer. With industrialization came efficiency, management and the pursuit of volume. The need for same-ness was equated with quality. The values of craftsmanship and the art of everyday skillful delivery gave way to volume, predictability and consistency.

With today’s knowledge workers, unique innovative solution-making is less about being managed for volume or velocity and more about being inspired with a clarity of vision, a great team of other craftspeople, and a deep understanding of what each customer really needs and wants. Leaders need to help create a clearing for their people to try new things, invent and feel safe doing so. It should be baked in to the teams capacity expectations.

Agility is really more of a personal, team and organizational skill than a methodology or a process. Learning about it requires learning some new distinctions. Rituals like standups, demo’s and exploratory testing are one thing, but code smells and anti-patterns are another. And we have to learn real-time through experimentation every day.

Leading knowledge workers requires very different skills than that of traditional management. Learning those skills requires a new posture to learning.

Remember when you were young and learning was energizing and fun? That is “beginner’s mind” and that is the state of having an empty cup. It is clear eyed, buoyant and curious rather than having “the answers”, and that is the state of discovery we are after. But it won’t happen without recognizing in ourselves, real-time, every day, that we need to adopt this new posture. At first it will feel uncomfortable, but with practice it will begin to feel exciting and fun and not knowing what will happen is part of the fun.

Making a transition from manager to leader means learning to see the world anew. It can feel vulnerable to no longer rely on what has worked for us in the past. We can take solace knowing that we are not the first and we are not alone. Success as a leader today means constant learning; even our coaches and mentors are all learning. The same is true when we are learning to be more agile. In many cases, it is time to empty our cup and simply become more open to the unfolding and discovery of something completely unexpected.

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Tom Churchwell is an experienced IT transformation leader who is passionate about helping people, organizations and communities change things for the better.

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