Leaders and Eye Specialist

How do I define leadership or how would like myself to be seen as a leader in the future. These are some of the questions I often come across. To be honest, it is quite hard to answer it precisely, after all, each ‘act’ of leadership depends on various factors including what the circumstances/situation demands. But if I was to generalize my perspective of leadership, or how I would like to be known as, I might be tempted to say, “I would like to be known as an eye specialist, rather than being a painter”, if I am allowed to answer figuratively.

The essence of the answer is quite simple and is inspired from works of Victor Frankl. A painter attempts to convey his visions of the world via his pictures, which is often interpretation of how he sees it. This is different from role of an eye specialist, whose role is to ensure that we see the world as it is, but with a much clearer and broader field of vision.

If one was to analyse the concept a bit deeper, isn’t that supposed to be what leaders need to be, especially with today’s increasingly competitive and highly skilled workforce ? The skill level and technical awareness of the teams are usually pretty high, and role of leaders has evolved from a taskmaster to being a servant leader. The role of an eye specialist might be that would take the concept of servant leadership a step higher. He aims in bringing more clarity to the team’s perspective on various things, in addition to broadening the field of perspective. The highly qualified cross-functional teams are then self sufficient to make better use of what they sees depending on each individual members proficiency in their trade. This collective, yet expert level contribution, would (in most cases) be far more effective than leaders own vision as he may not be the top ranked expert in each of the skills required for the task. It also would encourage the team members to take ownership of their work, rather than following someone else direction.

This concept has often worked well for me, having had the good fortune of leading teams, most often with team members, who were way ahead of me, both in terms of skill and experience. There are of course situation when you might have to paint the picture yourself, no second thoughts on that, but by donning the role of an eye specialist, you are actually encouraging team members to find more meaning to their work, which is essential to them enjoying their vocation and bringing the best out of them.

Carrot and Stick – An Avoidable Curse

“You need to put pressure on the team members, keep them on edge of their seat. Only then they will deliver to their full potential” 

I was startled to hear those words from my Supervisor. It was in complete contradiction to the school of thoughts I believed in. Coming from a senior member in the side, it was quite hard to believe that such old habits hadn’t died a natural death.

I have been a huge fan of “The Drive” by Daniel Pink and the discussion I would like to unfold in this article is inspired by the same.

Carrot and Stick, or the philosophy my Supervisor believed in revolves around a simple theory – as an employee, if you worked extremely hard, you get bonus or incentives, otherwise, there is a pink slip waiting for you at the desk the next day. It is a good concept in theory and works pretty well for problems that are mechanical or algorithmic in nature and require to accomplish a predefined number of steps to resolve it. However, the moment the tasks turn into one that require cognitive skills, creativity and decision making, Carrot and Stick falls flat on face.

Consider the example of a Pizza Delivery boy. If his manager were to give him incentives based on the number of Pizza he is able to deliver, it would definitely push him to do better. Or for a Call Center Support, the incentives pr pressure associated with ‘Number of Calls’ can be a driving factor. Such kind of external motivation factors can work in this scenario as there is hardly any creativity involved to crush.

But if the same external motivation is applied to an artist, over a period of time, carrot and sticks could achieve exactly opposite. The external factors would drive the artist to think of his canvas as a task rather than a chance to showcase his mastery, thereby pushing him to shortcuts, compromises on quality of his work and making his passion mundane.  His intrinsic motivation would decline over time, diminishing his creativity and quality.

This applies to field of Software Development as well, which to me, is a craft rather than an algorithmic job. If the focus is on quantity than on quality, it wouldn’t need Nostradamus to predict where the Software is heading to. Unwanted pressure and avoidable performance measurement metrics could lead to Employee frustrations , low performance and eventual high attrition rates.

One might ask – Can intrinsic motivation make such a huge impact ? One of the finest example of people working for passion is Wikipedia. Way back in late nineties, Microsoft started the initiative of bring up the digital encyclopedia. They had engaged the best of minds, specialists from all the domains but the initiative couldn’t get anywhere near the success which a group of unrelated, unpaid volunteers managed to do with Wikipedia. What drove them was their passion for mastering their skills without someone chaining their intrinsic technical eagerness.

That doesn’t mean monetary benefits aren’t important, especially in an organization. If the employee isn’t paid well, his focus would be on unfairness of the situation rather the task he is supposed to accomplish. But once we are passed that threshold, it is the intrinsic motivation that has to encouraged.

Quite sadly, that is something which some organizations and managers do not still appreciate or acknowledge. However, if they were to still stick to old schools of thoughts, it might not be far, before they find themselves in their own “well dug” graves. It is high time the managers discard pursuit for statically measuring performance and considering factors such as “facetime” as the de-facto measurement of commitment and productivity. Such metrics along with approaches like Carrot and Sticks could only breed employee frustrations and low performances.

Instead, they should focus on fostering 3 important factors,Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, which could bring the best out of the employees by instilling confidence and responsibility in them. It makes them feel valued, take ownership of their work and encourages them to perform better.

The role of Scrum Master in a Scrum is many ways the ideal leadership methodology in today’s high pressure competitive world. As a Manager, it is your responsibility to hire the best for job, but once your hire them, trust them completely. From that point, your duty is to server as the “servant leader” of the group, removing the impediments (technical,non-technical) that the team faces, and ensure that they are in right spirits when at their desk, so that they would deliver the best for you.