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The 1 Skill Every Agile Leader Must Learn

January 13, 2015

As a leader, your own behavior has a profound effect on the effectiveness of Scrum in the workplace. Want to embody great leadership to elevate your organization's performance? Consider adding an "apology" to your leadership toolkit.


Once upon a time, there was a young and promising professional that received a promotion from worker to manager. As part of his rapid ascent into the management ranks, he was now expected to "lead" teams to high levels of performance using his deep expertise, strong work ethic and energetic demeanor. He was then thrust into complex and demanding projects to drive results.

Some of these projects were quite challenging - multiple teams, tons of complexity, schedule demands, and other elements that we see in these pressure cookers. Perhaps you're in one of these right now?

This young manager showed tremendous determination and a strong sense of purpose to deliver results. He lived in the details daily and worked incredibly long hours. Under immense pressure, he would insert himself into struggling teams to solve their problems and get them 'back on track'. He responded to emails at 2am, 3am, 4am - and expected others to do the same. His expectation was that if he "led by example", others would respond and show the same level of focus, dedication and sacrifice for the greater good. And this in turn would lead to great results.

As you analyze this person's journey, ask yourself these questions:


1.  If you were a team member, how would this leadership style feel to you?

2.  Would you feel comfortable surfacing a big issue to the manager?

3.  What if your team has ideas for how to solve a problem, but the manager has already solved it for you and added it to your Backlog?







When to Apologize

A sincere apology is an incredibly powerful skill of great leadership, but it must be used in the proper context. Let's start with a lightly adapted definition from the game-changing Crucial Conversations skill set:









Apology - a sincere statement of sorrow for your part in causing pain or difficulty in others.


OK --- (deep breath) --- let's try an example.

What if you are leading some teams who have been working extra hours to solve a difficult problem, and you round up the crew for an infamous "status update". In this meeting, you discover that minimal progress has been made, so you jump to a whiteboard and start sketching out an idea for a solution. After all, you are under pressure as well and need progress to be made toward the goal, so why not offer your own ideas? As you look across the room and explain whiteboard scribble, you see blank stares - uncomfortable silence. The solution is SO obvious to you; why isn't it obvious to them? All eyes are on you, so you use this opportunity to make a dangerous statement:



With all of the extra hours you all are working, I don't understand why this problem isn't already solved.

Expecting a response, you get nothing in return. People stare at their laptops with tired and bloodshot eyes. Eyes roll in the back of the room.












What do you do now? How do you apologize?

I have seen situations like this play out in organizations over the years, but I rarely see the leader use a sincere apology to make things right. In the example above, this person dismissed all of the extra work and personal sacrifice from the teams. At the same time, the leader belittled everyone for the lack of progress. In short, this person made a leadership mistake that has hurt others, and if it isn't fixed, it will have a negative effect on team and organizational performance. Your best leaders will (more often than not) avoid this situation entirely, but regardless, skilled leaders quickly recognize when a mistake has been made and will issue a sincere apology in order to:



  • Show respect

  • Rebuild trust

  • Promote open & honest dialogue


Perhaps something to the effect of .....



I need to take a step back and apologize to all of you. Everyone is working so hard and making sacrifices to try and figure this out, and I haven't shown any appreciation for this.



I let the pressure get the best of me in the moment, and it was wrong. I am sorry.

If you were this leader, what would your apology sound like? More importantly, what would it feel like? One thing is for sure - if it isn't sincere and the leader's ego gets in the way, then more damage will be done.

With the New Year now underway and the workplace pressures back in full force, the chance for these mistakes will increase. Learn, think, practice - you never know when you might need to apologize.



I really appreciate you taking time to read this post. If you learned something new or were inspired in any way, please consider sharing with your colleagues so we can collectively make a difference in organizations of all shapes and sizes. Scrum On!

I also teach, mentor and coach People, Teams and Organizations to high levels of performance in an Agile environment. Want to experience some of my teachings in person? I would be privileged to collaborate with you at one of my upcoming events.

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