Smart people don’t need managing, they need leading

New Thinking 17 December 2018 Bruce Keightley

The topic of leadership is vast. Many of the traits we see as important are intangible and, although we might know who we would willingly follow, articulating why that is can be difficult. 

Agile leadership is equally as difficult to ‘get a handle on’. I’ve spent my adult life in positions of pure leadership that range from leading one person to hundreds of people, from permanent units to temporary entities, formed from multiple sources to achieve a specific set of outcomes. 

For the last eight years, I’ve been helping organisations to implement Agile and the need for a new approach to leadership is clear. When I now consider the subject of leadership, my first thought is of Peter Drucker’s observation about knowledge workers.

“An increasing number of people who are full-time employees have to be managed as if they were volunteers”. Peter Drucker, Management Challenges of the 21st Century

Knowledge workers are volunteers

Drucker defined knowledge workers as “those who know more about their job than their boss does”. The information age has widened that definition somewhat and perhaps it might include those who principally use their brains rather than their hands to produce value. 

So, you’re a knowledge worker – but do you feel like a volunteer? The answer is ‘probably not’. So what was Drucker on about? As a paid worker, your employer can compel you to come to work – otherwise you don’t get paid. But once you are at work, you can’t be compelled to apply your knowledge and experience to your tasks, it is a choice that you make. In essence, you volunteer your intellectual property.

How you say it

Now consider an experience you have of working with volunteers outside of work. My experience is with the parent support group for the primary school my two sons were attending. As Chairman of the support group, I couldn’t tell parents they had to turn up to a working bee on the weekend. I could try, but I’d probably get responses such as “I’d love to, but I’ve already made other plans”. Instead, if I said “Listen, the playground is a mess and really needs cleaning up. I’m going to be here on Saturday morning from 9:00 to 12:00 and I could really use a hand”, I’m more likely to get parents to come along. 

And even when I get them there on a Saturday morning, if I start allocating jobs, I’m still likely to meet resistance. Instead, if I lay out the jobs that need to get done, then pick the worst one for myself and get on with it, it’s more likely the rest will step forward and self-select their tasks. 

So, with volunteers, you need to set the ‘why’, be clear about priorities, then lead by example, get out of the way and let them get on with it – as they see fit. 

Lead by empowerment

As a knowledge worker, you’re a smart person. Do you need to be managed? Do you like being told what to do and how to do it? Does being closely monitored and checked up on urge you to become more productive? I’m going to take a punt here and guess that the answer to the last three questions is a resounding “NO”. Micro-management is the ultimate expression of industrial age management and has no place in organisations seeking to be or become Agile. 

Smart people don’t need managing, they need leading. They need a vision that inspires them, they need clear direction on where they are headed, and then they need leaders to get out of the way and let them get on with it. 

To me, Agile leadership is not about the leader, it is about the people they lead and the teams those people belong to. What can you do to empower them? What can you do to make it easier for them to do their work? What is slowing them down and what can you do to help speed them up? 

If you want to take the first step towards creating an Agile organisation, take a look at our Business Agility Foundations course.