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Developing Authentic Leadership
By Mike Griffiths

Recently I gave a talk on “Agile Project Leadership” at the Calgary Agile Methods User Group (CAMUG). I like giving these because the questions raised make me re-examine elements of leadership and last night was no exception.

One question raised was basically “We hear about these ideas and they sound good, but in our projects the same old stuff keeps happening. How do we get real results?” I responded with some explanation about encouraging servant leadership, but in retrospect I think the underlying question was more about making the switch to authentic leadership rather than shallow imitations that bring poor results.

Some subsequent discussions with a couple of attendees have helped me straighten out my thoughts on the issue further. “Cargo cults” is the term used to explain the phenomenon of blindly replicating outward behaviour with the hope that it will yield positive results. It originates from a few scattered instances of Pacific Island tribes recreating replicas of the war time aircraft runways, control towers, and radios out of wood in the belief that they would bring back the cargo planes that brought Western goods during the war.

The equivalent cargo cult leadership pattern would be to practice techniques like team recognition in the hope that it improves morale and productivity without understanding the work undertaken, or by presenting phony “well done’s” and insincere praise. People have excellent BS radars and phony praise is quickly recognized as attempts at manipulation and has the opposite effect as desired. Likewise mechanical-only attempts at creating a common vision, challenging the process, or creating empowered teams will fall short too. These activities require deep conviction or else they will falter and fade, making genuine attempts harder to introduce later as an “antibody effect” of mistrust develops in the team.

A quote I like on the subject is that “Leadership can not be taught, but it can be learned”. This addresses the idea that people have really got to buy-into the benefits of leadership for themselves in order to grow and be effective. We can teach most people mechanical techniques like estimation and risk management best practices, but when it comes to the humanistic based techniques, they need to be embraced and believed by the practitioner to be effective.

So how do we get this to happen? When I’m feeling lazy I am tempted to revert back to the idea that we should just focus on the people who “get-it” by mentoring and supporting people willing to absorb these ideas and leave the skeptics to their own self-limiting environments. Getting the “right people on the bus” certainly has its place, but as leaders we also have a duty to help develop the best from our team members.

Another attendee pointed me to the book “Powerful Project Leadership” and the quote “Managers use people to accomplish work; leaders use work to grow people”. I like this a lot. My take is that we have an obligation to lay an appealing trail of breadcrumbs to lead people along the path of figuring-out stuff for them selves.

What the breadcrumbs look like and where they go depends on the skills and needs of the person, but a reasonable starting process would be:

  1. Ask them what they want to do
  2. Ask them how they feel about areas for improvement
  3. Provide resources (training, books, mentoring) in areas they have an interest for
  4. Encourage “outsight” (input from people outside the organization) in their development
  5. Checkpoint regularly about how the process is going and if their goals have changed

For reluctant team members the process will be slow to start as responses of “Nothing” and “Nothing” to the first two questions are hard to build on. However, with some creativity and knowledge of their roles some mutually agreed to development areas, even if very small, should be possible to identify.

Not everyone wants an aggressive development program; sometimes people have enough change in their lives that work is their last vestige of sanctuary. However, most people recognize they should not stand still for long and a development plan will not only help with their career development, but is a tangible example of investment in their welfare by the organization or team.

So while I still believe this leadership stuff needs to be truly believed to be grasped and used effectively, I hope there are ways we can assist with the learning process to help people get there quicker.

Mike Griffiths is an independent consultant specializing in effective project management. Mike was involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994 and has been using agile methods (Scrum, FDD, XP, DSDM) for the last 13 years. He serves on the board of the Agile Alliance and the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN). He maintains a leadership and agile project management blog at

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