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Agile leader: be a gladiator at defining moments

February 28, 2018


Chris is a true example of an new type of leader. Not because he is a great speaker, nor because he has a big vision or has world changing ideas. Just because of one seemingly simple skill. A skill which is very hard to master. As a leader Chris stands out because he knows when to be like Russell Crowe in the movie The Gladiator. He recognizes the defining moments when he has to live the ambition. He knows when he has to lead his people by entering the 'battle' first. Let me tell you why.

Chris is the leader of several self-managing teams. at a certain point in time, his teams moved to an entire new building. New furniture, awesome views of the skyline. A very energetic new environment. One of the challenges with the old building was the refrigerator. The team members couldn't bring their own lunches, although this was annoying, everybody has accepted it. Except Chris. On moving to the new building, Chris wanted to use the moment to bring a whole new level of energy, pro-activeness and ownership to his teams. To stimulate that, he bought a brand new Smeg refrigerator and paid for it out of his own pocket. Early Monday morning, at 8:00 o'clock the shining red refrigerator was welcomed with applause. At 9:00 o'clock the facility services disconnected the refrigerator and put it in the basement. It didn't meet the facility regulations of the new building, they explained. Looking back, this was a defining moment for the culture. Depending on the behavior of Chris he would fail or succeed in creating the new culture. Chris picked up the phone and started to ask questions, he filled in forms and pushed the regulation boundaries of the new building. Seemingly without success.

Every great leader can take you back to a defining moment when they decided to lead John Paul Warren

I've seen many leaders do this and they would also hit their nose 2 or more times. Eventually they would leave it at that. Chris didn't; he tried and tried for months. It would be worthy of a great movie - of course - if he would finally manage to change the regulation and have his Smeg refrigerator back. But this isn't a movie, this is real life. Chris hit his nose for months in a row and stopped after a little over 4 months. Why did he do that? Was it stupid stubbornness? Was he bolt headed? Couldn't he admit his failure? Was he discouraged? I strongly believe he unconsciously knew that this was the defining moment. A test of his skill to inspire people. In a totally new way he really changed the culture and brought it to a new level. So looking at from a different angle he was successful. Why? Upfront he hoped to bring change through the practicality of the Smeg refrigerator. It would have saved people time to walk 20 floors down to the public refrigerator. But in retrospect, not having the refrigerator improved the culture even more. He showed his team that it often takes a lot of effort to change something in a company. If you really want to improve things, alter the habits or improve the system: you have to be ready for the fight. You can't bail out after 2 or 5 times. You have to keep on trying in different ways until you succeed. And not because you always will succeed but - perhaps - the most important reason: because you inspire others to also keep on fighting their battle. This is what I have been calling: be a gladiator at the defining moments. Knowing when you have to enter the 'battle field' first. Recognizing these moment when you have to live the ambition and put your career at stake. Go all in. What is so important for you that you are willing to fight the Gladiator-battle?

What is so important for you that you are willing to fight the gladiator-battle?

Why did Chris succeed?

Chris succeeded because he changed the culture. Previously it was the accepted behavior to stop improving when you didn't succeed after a few times. In the past some tried to improve the quality of the product, but they stopped after a few times because they didn't saw any change. Others tried to improve the hiring process to get better candidates, but they stopped after a few times because they couldn't change the process. The bad side-effect of it was that in the old culture it was acceptable to complain and gossip about the bad things. Complaining without improving was an acceptable and sometimes even promoted to new employees. So in the old culture it was acceptable behavior to stop improving when you couldn't make a change quick enough and start complaining. So how did Chris change this culture? Not by doing workshops, writing a memo with the title: 'this is our culture'. No. He was a gladiator at the defining moment and made that an important moment in history.

Chris lived the new culture by keep on trying, although you didn't have a quick success. he showed that important things are often tough things to change. When you really want to make a difference, you have to show the discipline, endurance and be willing to enter the battle the first. Don't wait for others to change the environment, be the change you want to see.

Important improvements are often tough improvements that require a lot of nose-bumps

Do you recognize these defining moments? Do you fight the gladiator fight or bail out?


New leaders are creating the environment for teams to thrive and be successful. They are servant-leaders towards their teams. This requires new skills and mindsets. One of the skills is to recognize the moments where they have to show leadership and enter the battle-field the first. To be a Gladiator. With this behavior they show to their teams what's really important. What's really worth fighting for. They don't stop when it doesn't work after a few times, they don't start complaining. No: they keep on fighting. Not necessary to succeed (live isn't a movie with a guaranteed happy ending), but often to inspire their teams to also keep on trying and fighting for their own important improvements. By doing so they inspire others and live the new culture.

About Peter Koning

Peter is an experienced leadership consultant. After years of leading agile teams he now mentors and coaches agile leaders in large companies. He has written a book 'Agile Leadership toolkit' (already available in Dutch, soon available in English). Every month he gives a training on this new kind of leadership, for more information visit his community website: or follow one of his courses:

This story is based on a real-life manager and his experience. The name of the leader has been anonomized. Smeg is a trademark of Smeg S.p.A

nonomized. Smeg is a trademark of Smeg S.p.A

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