Servant Leadership, Commander’s Intent and Decentralised Command
With many businesses still struggling to cope with the challenges of Covid-19 it’s clear that classical ways of managing and running organisations may not guarantee survival.
In turbulent times good leaders will increase their chances of surviving and thriving by instilling an Agile culture throughout their entire organisation.
Instilling an Agile culture always has to start with an Agile approach to management. And it’s vital for leaders to understand that this is something that, in today’s business climate, is no longer a nice-to-have.
Experienced leaders will agree that, at the leadership level, both an Agile mindset and skillset is essential for agility to take root and flourish throughout the organisation.
Command and control is so yesterday
No one likes micro-management, and in a fast-paced, rapidly changing world, it’s a losing proposition for leading the smart people we hire to help us thrive. After all, as Steve Jobs so famously said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Instead, decentralised command and decision-making has rapidly become a business essential for all – and this is something that requires empathy and respect for your teams as well as strong, courageous leadership.
The idea is simple: as a leader you need to create a structure that allows you to clearly communicate your intent. What, in a military context, is called Commander’s Intent. And this involves giving your teams a clear goal. So the smart people you hire can very easily self-navigate and figure out how to get there.
Then, as a leader, instead of ordering people what to do, your role changes from telling people exactly how to achieve your goal to monitoring their progress towards the goal. Being focused on the challenges that teams are trying to overcome and helping your people to overcome those challenges.
This means growing their skillset, nurturing their mindset, showing them how they can collaborate better and genuinely growing the team. The dream for most managers and leaders is to have a smart guy or girl to whom they can say: “go away and achieve this goal.” And off they go and get it done, with the bare minimum of intervention.
What is Agile Leadership Style?
Servant Leadership: you are no longer the smartest person in the room
That old-school command-and-control micro-management approach tended to come from leaders being the smartest person in the room. Instead, what we advise is that leaders need to help their teams focus on where they need to go. Your entire focus as a leader needs to be on empowering your teams, building their skillset and eliminating those impediments that they themselves cannot eliminate.
That last bit is particularly important, because if you do everything for your teams then what happens is that you create ‘learned helplessness.’ The alternative approach to leadership that we advocate, which is about helping your people to improve and to level-up their skills is often known as Servant Leadership.
Yet establishing decentralised command is still an immense challenge for leaders, particularly those used to those more traditional command-and-control styles of management. Many (falsely) equate the idea of decentralised command with their innate fear of ‘losing control’ and the worry that their company will descend into chaos as teams run amok.
Decentralised decision-making and decentralised command doesn’t mean that you are relinquishing control. It is, instead, about empowering and unleashing your people to achieve their best.
We all know that as soon as leadership teams start to feel that they are relinquishing control, they start to feel unsafe. Commander’s Intent (or Leader’s Intent) solves this by providing your teams a clear understanding of what ‘success’ looks like.
How can Agile Leaders use Servant Leadership?
Agile leaders give their teams the ‘why’ and trust them to figure out and deliver the ‘how’. They give their teams the autonomy to self-organise, to create and to get the job done. A leader’s focus then shifts to eliminating the challenges that the teams themselves cannot solve and growing their skillset to collaborate, overcome greater challenges and achieve audacious goals.
Today’s business leaders need to understand, remember and put into practice these two fundamental ideas: Commander’s Intent coupled with Servant Leadership.
This is how decentralised command comes to life.
Jay is co-founder of Fractal Systems Consulting, an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches who have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change.
If you’re interested in learning in a fun, application-rich environment that focuses on real-world applied approaches, register for one of our training courses.