Tag Archives: agile leadership

Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset.  So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake?  Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment.  This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.

Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem.  As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.

Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control.  A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause.  This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control.  This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership.  It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”

If we don’t play the blame game – then what?

The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake.  The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.

So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit?  In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake.  If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:

The benefits of admitting our mistakes

It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage.  It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.

It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time.  Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.

It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example.  There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”.  If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.

It garners greater respect:  I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate.  Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation.  Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes.  This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused.  Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.

It engenders more trusting relationships:  The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”.  This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.

It creates greater organisational value:  If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you.  The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors.  Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.


An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth.  It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it.  Don’t you agree?


Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall.  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Overcoming-Organizational-Defenses-Facilitating-Learning/dp/0205123384/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332407757&sr=8-1

Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/30/12/1636.abstract

The Real Job of Leaders

Word count 1277, Time to read: 15 mins, Published 16 November 2011

In the previous newsletter I started to talk about motivation as that was a subject that a number of you requested as a place to start in our work together.  Since writing that installment I have been reflecting on a number of themes around motivation in order to provide you with something more meaningful than a rehash of “bog standard” motivational theories and practices.  As part of this reflection I became curious about whether or not as leaders, motivation, in its truest sense, is really our concern.  Allow me to explain further …

Dealing with Symptoms or Causes

Leaders these days are stressed out with the many calls on their time to fix the day to day crises that occur in their departments or organisations.  In fact they could probably be better referred to as fire-fighters rather than leaders.  As a coach and consultant my job is to challenge their thinking and behaviours and very often I discover that what their time is most consumed with is fixing the symptoms of organisational issues rather than the true causes.  So let’s take the subject of motivation in its most general terms: poor motivation, low morale, malaise, discontent, absenteeism and so on; are these symptoms or causes?  To my mind these are symptoms of underlying issues and not real causes.  Allow me to present you with a case study of someone who I worked with a few years back …

Dealing with Anger …

I was asked to coach Sally (not her real name), who was a senior manager responsible for quality in a large manufacturing organisation.  The issue that I was asked to coach her on was her anger and attitude.  For the first couple of sessions I was getting to know her and what was expected of her in her role and most importantly why she was “doing anger”.  (I can’t assume that she was feeling angry or yet more deeply being angry; to jump to conclusions about her experience would be fateful to the coaching relationship and the subsequent coaching outcomes, a mistake that rookie coaches or well intentioned leaders acting as coaches make.)    It became very apparent to me that Sally had every reason to be angry about what she was observing in the organisation.  Sally was good at her job.  She was a perfectionist, the ideal sort of person you would want to be heading your QA efforts.  However this tendency carried over into her professional relationships which had an inclination to put a strain on them.  Now bear in mind that HR had asked me to come in to work with Sally and to help “fix” her anger issue.  As I have said further exploration to the underlying issues, the potential causes of Sally’s issues revealed chaos, bullying, lethargy and incompetence in the organisation.  Now of course I have to be careful and not swallow everything whole that Sally presented, but even if only a fraction of what she was saying was true then to my mind, she had every reason to be angry.

A Happy Ending?

I wont go into the how I proceeded with the coaching suffice to say that the contract was renegotiated so that I could help Sally deal with her righteous anger in a healthy way.  The organisation wasn’t yet ready to change and subsequently Sally made her peace with the organisation and parted ways; she now works in an organisation that demonstrates appreciation for her, not by paying her more money (although she gets that too) but by listening to her and acting, where appropriate, on the advice she gives.  So all round yes this was a happy ending both for the organisation and Sally.  The organisation didn’t want to particularly lose Sally’s expertise but it didn’t also want the disruption that it perceived that Sally caused.  Sally is most definitely happy because she has come to understand that her feelings are telling her something and rather than act them out (doing anger) her feelings are usually a sign for her to go inwards and discover her own true source (or cause) of her discontent.  In Sally’s case this was a clash of values, a conflict that could only be resolved in the short term by sally find another organisation where people shared and lived her values.

Are You Working in an Angry Organisation?

So we started about talking about motivation and how leaders can motivate their people. Anger in organisations is commonplace, but organisations aren’t angry – people are, but very often the feeling of anger is justifiable but how we demonstrate our anger becomes an issue. Anger is a most uncomfortable emotion to deal with for many people.  In fact many people have been told that their anger is not “right”.  There is also a common belief that anger is a negative emotion.  These are very curious beliefs that find their origins in our care-givers who will punish or chastise a child that demonstrates their anger.  So what tends to happen in those cases where we are conditioned to believe that anger is bad, the anger goes underground and becomes invisible.*    This happens a lot in organisations, especially hierarchical ones that reinforce a parent-child dynamic between its leaders and it’s workforce.   Seething anger ferments and festers under the false smiles and “let’s pretend to be nice to each other” is far more damaging because it remains underground and becomes the un-discussable.

*As an aside its a fact that covering our true feelings happens with just about any emotions; a care-giver might just as easily reinforce the belief that it’s bad to demonstrate too much happiness, confidence, joy, love and so on.  These feelings are then supressed and replaced with feelings that are more acceptable to the care-giver.  In Transactional Analysis (TA) terms this is referred to racketeering.

So dealing or “fixing” anger is a classic example of dealing with an organisational symptom and not a true cause.  Peoples negative attitudes in organisations are often born out of frustration at not being able to make a change or difference to their working lives.  Worse still, they see their destinies being held in the hand of their leaders who in their minds are a “bunch of idiots who don’t know what they are doing.”  Of course this is the politer version of what I tend to hear, but I’m sure you know what I am driving at.

The Real Job of Leadership

The real job of leaders to my mind is to work on fixing what Herzberg referred to as hygiene factors.  If anger is a commonly observed symptom in the organisation the job of the leader is to uncover the root cause of the issue.  However there might be little appetite for that work as it may uncover deep rooted issues that are far more difficult to fix than sending the angry people to coaching.  It may mean that the leader will have to change something about themselves or their team.  Is your organisation one that deals effectively with the destructive and un-resourceful behaviours of senior management; or does it turn a blind eye because there maybe difficult, adult conversations that lie ahead?  I’m interested to hear more so please do share your experiences here with us all – but do give yourself a pseudonym in case your truth, like mine, is a little unpalatable to others in your organisation – just in case they read this too.

In the next article I will talk a little more about the hygiene factors and how as leaders we can make our organisations more habitable for our people.

Until then I wishing you all the best in your quest to become the leader you dream of being,




Leadership Development Newsletter no 1

Motivation: the differentiating factor between leaders and managers

Total Word count: 1089
Max Time to read: 10 minutes
Sent 26 October 2011

John Kotter the esteemed professor of leadership at Harvard Business School once remarked in one of his articles: “No one has yet figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led” (Kotter, 1990, p 39).

Now that is not to say that we don’t need managers, we do. But often the missing ingredient in organisations, both large and small, is leadership.  Now I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the differences between management and leadership but the one key differentiator is leaders motivate and inspire their people, whereas managers tend to be very good at writing plans, forecasts, budgets and tell people what to do.

So How Do Leaders Go About Motivating And Inspiring People?

Let me make now a distinction for you, because as an organisational consultant I have been exposed to a wide variety of leadership styles; some are very effective at moving people to take action (my definition of motivation there: moving to action) whereas others are not so. I would like to describe some of the things that these excellent leaders are better at doing than the not so good ones, but before I start a word of caution…

Motivating The Un-Motivatable.

I am often asked how do I motivate an individual who appears to be un-motivatable, in short: don’t bother. As I joke with some of my leadership clients, it’s like teaching a pig to sing: it wastes your time and energy and it annoys the pig.

So nobody wins. But you have to know that the person is truly un-motivatable and that may take some time and attention to figure out. It is unfortunate that some people have “sold out” and have decided to trade a number of working hours in the week for a paycheck and don’t bother to show up for work and by that I mean they leave their heart and passion at home. I feel sorry for them because they are missing out on one of life’s true blessings and gifts: fulfilling work. It is my firm belief that these people can be helped, but that is another 10 articles worth that requires much coaching to get them more engaged because they have lost hope and have become cynical. Sometimes the only thing you can do as a leader is to compassionately and ethically let them go in favour of bringing someone to work for you that will find the work fulfilling. But don’t do as some people do which is ignore the problem. This will have negative repercussions on the rest of your team and their energy levels.

But Maybe The Work Just Isn’t That Interesting

Now I often have wonderful discussions around this subject because some people will argue that not all work can be fulfilling. I disagree. Fulfilment is a state of mind where passion comes to work to do the best job possible. So for me it is about finding the right person for the right job and not just somebody who is willing to show up for work every day. The biggest business advantage will go to the organisation with the best people. Those who are passionate and love their work. In the UK we have a TV show called “Undercover Boss” and watching one or two episodes of this will reveal to you that people can get really passionate about what the rest of might consider menial labour.

So What Do Excellent Leaders Do?

Well I started creating a list of things that excellent leaders do and to be honest I haven’t yet come to the end of writing it yet. So in the interest of meeting my writing goal and get this information to you today I have decided to focus on what I would argue is the most important activity a leader must engage in.

Excellent Leaders Understand Their People:

Excellent leaders understand what it will take to move their followers and they do this by accessing the inner resources of their people. What do I mean by inner resources? Well these things like a person’s values, beliefs, assumptions, their sense of purpose or their need to belong to something great. Let me give you a personal example from my earlier career when I worked as a business analyst.

Peter – Rubbish Manager But Excellent Leader

Peter was a civil servant manager on one of the middle pay grades. As a manager he was hopeless (sorry Peter but true, incidentally I have changed his name in case he ever reads this). But as a leader he earned my loyalty and respect. I hope you noticed the very careful wording there – earned. I had a dispute with my agency over some matter that some seem insignificant and I decided that was it so I handed my notice in. Now Peter was not my direct boss but was a few levels higher in the organisation so I dint report to him.  However Peter learned that I had handed my notice in (I had only been there 3 weeks) and inquired as to why. Peter then got involved in the process and ended up resolving the conflict, which turned out greatly in my favour. Now Peter didn’t need to get involved, I was a contractor and some managers and leaders think they are two-a-penny. But Peter didn’t he demonstrated that he cared enough to get involved and stuck his neck out for me. From that day onwards I applied myself to the role like I had done in no other job before that. All because I was inspired by another man’s kind actions. Peter spoke to my inner values of “matter of principle”, “loyalty”, “fairness” and “kindness”. Because I saw someone who cared about the same things that I did, I was motivated, no – inspired to do more for him.

Now as I write these words I am aware that time is ticking on and there is so much more to say, so I will come back to this subject in the next newsletter.

So if there is anything that you would like to ask, I would be more than happy to answer either in the newsletter or directly via email to you.

So until next time I wish you all the very best on your journey to becoming the leader you dream of being.

Warm regards

Reference: Kotter, J. 1990. “What Leaders Really Do.” Original article reproduced in HBR’s 10 Must reads on Leadership, 2011, Harvard Business Review Press

Something Agile Leaders can learn from Steve Jobs

Ok – maybe there are lots of things that Agile Leaders can learn from the  late Steve Jobs, but here is just one particular example.

Focus to bring business value …

Steve JobsIt is reported that when he returned to Apple in 1997 Steve Jobs reduced the number of Apple products from 350 down to just 10.  Why did he do this?  Surely a company would have more chance of penetrating the market with over three hundred products rather than just 10. Well, no.

One of the main values of Scrum is focus.  The creators of Scrum understood that there is only a certain amount of meaningful attention that an individual or a team can apply to a problem in any given time, otherwise the level of noise in the team just increases.  The same is true for organisations also where the cost of maintaining a product or service continues to demand attention long after the product has been created and delivered.

Focus as a cornerstone value for Agile business practice

One of the important things a leader must do in their organisation is to continue to critically appraise which products they want their teams to work on.  I was asked to by a senior manager in an organisation to sit in on their weekly review board and provide some Agile consulting to her and the other attendees.  I made an observation about the number of change projects that they had ongoing.  There were over fifty projects of varying sizes and complexity.  Her comment back to me was “well that’s what’s expected to be done around here”.  We had some more discussions on this point but in short the organisation continues to fail to meet all of its targets and is continually playing catch up on meeting its commitments with its clients.

Why wont leaders change?

There is a fear that prevails in many senior managers that they must be seen to be doing more, yet they will have heard the expression “less is more” but they will continue to respond to their fears rather than the needs of their customers. Customers may not often want more, but they do want quality.  This is why Apple excelled at what they did.  (I use the past tense because I’m sure there are many like me who are waiting to see if the Apple culture of creativity and quality will continue in the absence of one of the most inspired leaders the world has known.)

The solution …

Prioritise.  Again experience informs me that is an often uncomfortable conversation I have with senior managers who believe they want it all and they need it now.  I explain about focus and attention; I talk about sustained pace of the team; I implore on the basis of better quality and motivated teams;  but the justification that I am given is that they don’t want to fall behind the competition; or certain stakeholders will expect these features or changes or some other form of rationalisation that make their demands right.

In short by asking a senior manager to prioritise  I am asking them to take more time to think about where their priorities lie and as a result what they should focus on. But all too often it is easier to to put more pressure on the product delivery teams to deliver more and quicker.  This keeps the managers from making painful choices and having uncomfortable conversations that involve saying no to stakeholders.  This is not leading but passing the buck and the consequence of these types of decisions that put more pressure on the delivery teams is poor quality and as a result poor customer satisfaction.


It makes me wonder what would have happen if Steve Jobs would have allowed his executive team to continue working on over 300 different products.  Would we have ever seen the ipod, ipad, iphone or itunes? And if we did would we have seen lesser versions of these products that would have annoyed us?  In short there is much business sense in focusing our resources on doing a few things well rather than a lot things mediocre. Remember less really is more.

About the Author

Mark Buchan is an Agile consultant  with experience of delivering organisational transformation for his clients.  He has worked with organisations such as Rolls-Royce, Nokia, Bupa and BT.

You can view Mark’s profile on linked-in

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