8 reasons why leaders don’t lead agile transformation

Leaders don’t always step up to the plate and lead change the way they are meant to.

There’s often some very valid reasons for that.

What’s holding you back?

You’re meant to be leading the agile transformation initiative, perhaps it’s your idea, maybe you’re the sponsor. Either way, you’ve got a niggling feeling that you’re not stepping up and fully discharging your duties as change leader. And you’re not quite sure why…

I have some thoughts on that. Eight in fact.  In this article I share the eight reasons that I have seen play out often with leaders of change who appear to be holding back. Have a read through and see if any of them particularly resonate.

1. You don’t feel safe.

It takes extraordinary courage, commitment and possibly stupidity to be the public face of change and agile transformation when it is not safe.

In recent years the concept of psychological safety has become talk of the town. Edmondson and Lai (2014) define a psychologically safe workplace environment is one where:

employees do not fear retribution for taking interpersonal risks, such as speaking up, challenging the status quo, and engaging in congruent communication and collaboration for the greater good of the organization.

What I find interesting is that much of our focus on psychological safety is on employees – we need to recognise that leaders exist within a system where there may be retribution for taking interpersonal risks, such as speaking up, challenging status quo etc. Ridicule by media – social or traditional is common.

And of course, the challenge for leaders in not feeling safe is you will most likely be in threat response neurologically. We know from brain function studies, that when you are in threat mode it is much more difficult to be high performing. You just don’t think strategically. You will do more stupid thing and make poorer choices. Which leads to more ridicule – a vicious cycle.

The poisoned chalice

A lack of safety can also be identified when you note you have been handed what appears to be a poisoned chalice – something that initially looks like a great opportunity, but ultimately will bring about your downfall. It all sounds very Shakespearean, but it is quite common. When you realise the opportunity of a lifetime, is ultimately something that has been doomed to fail and you sense you have been put in as a fall guy or gal, not surprisingly you experience a sense of both disappointment and betrayal.

 2. Need to be liked

Back in the 60’s psychologist researcher Professor David McClelland did seminal work on Need Theory. He put forward there were three core motivations in leadership – need for affiliation (or social bonding, people to like us), need for achievement, and need for control.

Traditionally good leaders tended to score high on need for achievement and control, and low on need for affiliation. In more recent research the findings have shifted some-what on transformational leaders – within this population it seems that having a high need for affiliation engenders more followership and its kind of a good thing. But if over played, it becomes problematic.

An overplayed strength 

Need for affiliation is one of those things I see in leaders as an overplayed strength. An over played strength is one where in deploying your strength too much you get an opposite and contradictory effect.

So, leaders who have a high need to be liked exhibit more pro-social behaviour (caring, engagement, support) – but in their quest to be liked, step back from activities which may be unpopular, or may have people not like them (e.g. announcing a change or explaining how the decision was made). It compromises their ability to make tough decisions

3. You’re conflict avoidant.

Being the front public vocal face of an agile transformation means that you are the front public vocal face of conflict. People expressing concern and dissent, outrage, betrayal. Let’s return to the importance of managing our emotions by way of the neuroscience lens. If you are not in control of your emotional response when faced with conflict you may move into freeze or flight and not show up (of the freeze, fight or flight). All those responses are very effective at saving your life (depending on the threat), none of them are useful at leading change

4. I’m not good at…

The fourth reason why I see leaders holding themselves back from leading change is their knowledge of what they are not good at.

I’m not good at:

  • Speaking In the moment
  • Speaking on my feet
  • Speaking In front of people

This may stem from a desire to control, a natural inclination to introversion, or coming from an occupational background that encourages and rewards precision, risk mitigation, control (e.g. finance, economics or science). And of course, our reward systems in organisation penalizes what we are not good at (more threat response). So, if in leading change you need to do something you know you are not good at, you will often avoid the responsibilities (flight or freeze again).

5. Team conflict.

It’s difficult to step up and lead if you are concerned that you are going to be sabotaged by one of your executive team members. A mistrust or dislike of the team members is derived from two main areas – recognising a lack of capability in the executive team (he or she is not up to the job, they’ll mess this up) OR your peers have a different motivation, and you are not all on the same page.

6. Inadvertent ignorance.

Some leader are genuinely puzzled they are expected to be upfront of the change and think their responsibility is purely decision maker and funding provider. The absence of change leadership can be attributed to a fundamental lack of understanding about change management and agile transformation, the benefits and the role a leader plays.

7. A touch of the control freak.

Change and transformation can be very, very messy. By nature, it is complex work. High on uncertainty, and usually pretty rich in ambiguity. And not everyone relishes that space.

  • It’s stuff we can’t quantify
  • It’s stuff we can’t categorise
  • It’s stuff we can’t organise

And as identified in the first post, many leaders come from occupational backgrounds that do everything possible to tidy up the messy. Quantify. Categorise. Organise. Wrap up in a ribbon and put on a shelf.

8. Fear of Failure

Leaders are humans. And with humanity comes fears. From a leadership fear perspective, there are often two drivers of fear.

Imposter syndrome, where you are just waiting for people to work out who you really are, and that you really are not up for the job

Or a variant of the Marianne Williamson quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves – who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …

And in both cases imposter or greatness, there is a real risk that in playing big, you screw things up. And that screw up will be expensive. And career limiting.  The higher you rise, the further you fall.

So there you go, quite understandable really. Eight very valid reasons why leaders don’t always step up to lead agile transformations.

Do these resonate with you?

Which ones do you see playing out the most?

And what do you do about it?