Leadership as a Team Sport

sigi | 16. 11. 2011

By Sabine Eybl, Sigi Kaltenecker and Johanna Schober In this article you can find some ideas on the concept of leadership as a team sport // Together with a presentation given at the Scrum Safari Gathering in Cape Town the article highlights the deep change in management and organization in the 21st century.

One of the results of our study on “Successful Leadership in an Agile World” which resonates the most with the agile community is the concept of ”leadership as a team sport“. The importance of this concept has been emphasized by various participants of our “Agile Leadership Training for Managers”. Why this resonance?

On the one hand this concept reflects a deep change in what it means to successfully lead teams and organizations in the 21st century. On the other hand the concept uses soccer as a metaphor for agile team work. First of all, Slide 5 of the presentation at the Scrum Safari in Cape Town summarizes some of the most important differences between ”traditional leadership“ and ”leadership as a team sport”. Whereas the traditional approach builds on a leader who acts as a single point of authority, a privileged decision-maker and a one-way-street communicator, leadership as a team sport takes a very different route. Here, the focus is on a dense network of reciprocal relationships, a goal-oriented combination of diverse perspectives, open communication, team-based decision-making and professional conflict resolution. Performance is not driven by command-and-control anymore – it is driven by mutual understanding and helping. Success is the result of the flexible collaboration of various forces. In other words, everyone is allowed to take the lead whenever this seems to be necessary for the benefit of the whole team. Leadership of this collaboration is therefore neither limited to a formal position (e.g. the team lead) nor to a single person (e.g. one key player). On the contrary, as in soccer every player can set important impulses, make the decisive pass, strike whenever a position seems to be promising and score for the benefit of the whole team. As we all know, a defender can as well get the decisive goal as a midfielder or a forward.

What can we learn from soccer for leading in an agile environment? Perhaps, this is the most important lesson: to win a game, i.e. to be successful as a team depends on the willingness to help each other. This help consists of running to be in the right place at the right time, whether you have the ball or not. For sure, the contribution of each player in terms of passes completed and importance for strategy or tactics is always different. As the network analysis shows (see Slide 6), there are always players who are more active or agile. But one must not forget that this agility does not necessarily mean that the most active ones dominate the whole game. Neither does the coach. Actually, his influence is quite limited. A soccer team is a self-organizing unit following a very specific dynamics. Slide 7 reminds us of the fact that these dynamics is also strongly influenced by the broader organizational context of the soccer club´s management, its fans or the sponsors who spend a lot of money to see “their” team win.

Likewise, in organizations leadership is more about the collective than it is about a single manager or employee. And it is definitely more about the actual relationship of this collective with its customers (“sponsors”) and stakeholders (“fans”). In other words, it is as much about the specific qualities and competences that the team can actually realize as it is about your opportunity to instantly create value for customers and stakeholders.

What we have learned from our interviews with diverse practitioners during the study on “Successful Leadership in an Agile World” mirrors our own experience as managers and consultants who have been involved in different companies. The lesson, in a nutshell: effective cross-cultural, hierarchy-bridging collaboration of different members is a key factor for success. This success factor is also the focus of a current case study which is briefly presented in the second part of the slide show (see Slide 8). In this case, the IT department of a mid-sized media company realized leadership as a team sport by

  • mindfully contracting with the CTO, clarifying the idea of a “fresh start”, the problems to be solved, the “most valuable players” to be included and the expected results to be tracked.
  • building a core team for driving the “fresh start”. This team consisted of members from different teams, areas of expertise and hierarchy levels (besides the initial idea of a rotating membership which was actually never realized);
  • kicking off the “fresh start” by creating and aligning “mission statements” from diverse perspectives, identifying the most important stakeholders and their mutual relationships as well as running a classical retrospective identifying what had gone well so far, what had not gone well and what the team thought they can learn from their experience;
  • conducting interviews with the identified customers and stakeholders, distilling their most important needs and pains in order to make sure that the so-called “re-loading of agile principles” delights customers (or at least meets their interests);
  • facilitating a large group event with all members of the IT unit, re-creating the missions statements, presenting what the core team had learned from their interviews, openly discussing the results on cross-functional table groups and collectively defining and prioritizing measures for success;
  • monitoring these measures and continuously inspecting and adapting them;
  • presenting stories of successful change including intense peer consulting on different levels (all ScrumMasters, all Product Owners and almost all line managers in homogenous groups to foster their learning processes according to their specific roles);
  • coaching of ScrumMasters and training of Product Owners by external experts;
  • agile leadership training of a hierarchy-bridging group of managers;
  • regular retrospecting of the “fresh start” change process and its management;
  • developing a strong culture of continuous learning and improvement.

The importance of leadership as a team sport is also reflected by the current theoretical discussion on leadership and organizational design. Indeed, leadership as a team sport is not a new concept in the academic field. Katzenbach and Smith´s landmark book on „The Wisdom of Teams. Creating the High-Performing Organization“, first published in 1993,  was one of the first books addressing the concept of „shared leadership“. According to Katzenbach and Smith, leadership is shared when

  • everyone takes responsibility for the team´s success as well as for individual growth;
  • results are achieved and presented collectively;
  • authority is distributed according to expertise;
  • communication creates a network of trustful relationships;
  • important decision are aligned with each team member;
  • processes are reviewed regularly and adapted if needed;
  • the quality of collaboration is also on the agenda for regular retrospection.

With his concept of a “leaderful practice“, Joseph A. Raelin even goes beyond Katzenbach and Smith´s ideas. Raelin defines four qualities of contemporary leadership:

1.)     ”concurrent“, i.e. there is not only one person leading at one time but a lot of team members;

2.)     “collective“, i.e. leadership is driven by the informal communication and decision-marking of various experts rather than formal authority;

3.)     ”collaborative“, i.e. it is about intense team work;

4.)     ”compassionate“, i.e. based on individual responsibility for the team´s success and mutual growth.

As Raelin puts it, we need organizations that give everybody the opportunity to lead and set decisive impulses that potentially make a difference – according to the organization´s current situation and the needed expertise. ”The essence of leadership is collaboration and mutuality.”

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