A Shortcut To Great Leadership

This article features Carlos Oliveira, the founder of AdaptiveX Innovation & Design Thinking consulting and an experienced Agile coach and leader.

My friends in leadership positions, do you feel the need to constantly validate yourself so you jump into action instead of guiding your team? Micro-manage and react instead of anticipating and guiding? You’re not alone. I was there. Many bright minds stumble here. More importantly… if you relate to what I described, it’s a red flag for your wellness. Because that’s how burnout happens! And not just yours, your whole team’s. 

When I started implementing the principles I’m about to share with you, I was a person who had a demanding position, many moving parts to manage, deadlines as tight as my jeans from 10 years ago and a whole heap of pressure to show results. Yet I was lost because I was starting to get burned out and didn’t know how to deliver while feeling like my battery is at half capacity.

Burnout had pushed me to review my professional experience and see what had worked in the past. And going through heaps of personal and business development books. And I identified the principles that would help me survive and deliver. I called them Move / Pause / Mirror

‘Mirror’ The Surroundings

There’s a common mistake passionate people make when they join a new venture. And it eventually leads to burnout. I’ve made this mistake too, probably so I can later share it with you and spare you the embarrassment. A passionate person enters a new environment with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement and starts introducing all sorts of new ways of doing things. He goes home feeling good about himself, anticipating the impact he’s going to make. Just to find out a few days or weeks later that the team is frustrated and nothing is moving forward because no one intends to cooperate. 

This happens because no one likes change that they themselves didn’t initiate. Upon entering a new arrangement you have to first learn the lay of the land. While you may have joined this venture precisely because you wanted to shake things up, the people in it don’t see it the same way. Especially when it’s coming from someone they hardly know or trust.

This is where the principle of Mirroring comes in. Enter this mode during the initial part of your journey in a new venture, project, or team. Observe, learn, collect information and mirror the environment and its customs. I promise you will rethink your plans and come up with better ones, so long as you pay close attention. 

Mirroring helps ease any kind of transition and adaptation. And more importantly, saves you energy. Use it when you’re starting something new with other people. It’s tempting to assume that this doesn’t apply to you if you’re in a leadership position. But it does. No matter how stressed you may be about needing to prove your worth as a leader, you will be infinitely more stressed out once your team rebels and blocks you because your changes have ruffled too many feathers. 

Some activities that can help you design a burnout-free environment in a Mirror state are:

  • Meet-and-greet team activities
  • Team building
  • 1:1s to get to know the team members
  • Strategy downloads
  • Knowledge transfer sessions
  • Attending team standups as a guest
  • Taking corporate training

Engage ‘Move’ Mode

Once you’re in an environment that you’re familiar with you can launch the Move mode. The movement has to be at a pace appropriate for your environment. Want to move faster among massive, slow, unwieldy mechanisms? You’ll get hurt. Want to move slowly in a fast-paced team? You’ll get hurt. One will chew you out and the other will chew you up. Instead of forcing these systems, people and mechanisms to move at your speed, meet them where they are. Try to understand how they work and where the major speed bumps or breaking points are. Research, learn, and gather data. Identify opportunities to speed things up or to prevent a crisis. In other words, keep moving but modulate your speed. Stubbornly trying to run on the terrain where the resistance is high will quickly tire you out. Modulating your movement will save your energy and prevent burnout.

Save your energy in the Movement mode by remembering that movement is about motion, speed and direction. Activities that make sense in this state are Agile sprints; Design sprints; Research sprints; Strategy sprints, etc. Adjust the duration to what the team is most comfortable with. Any kind of time-boxed activity works well in the Movement mode. Movement with a finite timeframe allows one to examine the result and adjust the motion speed and direction going forward.

Time to ‘Pause’?

There’s another mode that is underused and under-appreciated. Few leaders understand its true power and feel confident enough to apply it. It’s the Pause mode. And it’s one of the modes that my upcoming ‘ENERGY PRINCIPLES’ book will be elaborating on. Entering the pause mode after a spurt of movement is what enables recovery. If you’re an athlete you know that recovery is just as important as the training itself. 

One of the companies I worked with would sprint from one product launch to the next with little downtime in between. It’s no surprise that by year 2 most employees and leadership were completely burned out and a few people quit. Pausing seems like a waste of time when you have good momentum and goals to meet. So leaders often find out too late that a Pause mode was needed earlier on. 

This is also one of the main reasons why I and other professionals often put off vacations for months. Early in my career, I couldn’t understand why senior team members kept insisting that I take regular vacations. The habit of not valuing the Pause mode is what leads to burnout later on in our careers. So now it’s our turn to remind junior team members to get a life.  

A successful team is a sustainable one. It understands the purpose of the Pause mode and how energy is regenerated during this period. And a leader that enables safety and commitment to this can count on having their long-term goals met. A simple rule of thumb for knowing when to enter the Pause is to do it right after an intensive Movement phase. 

Here are some ideas for when to enter the Pause mode: right after a sprint or any time-boxed activity. After a release or a launch. At the end of the year, because there’s a good reason why mother nature puts things on hold in the winter 🙂 

There are a few activities that the team can engage in during the downtime: cleaning up and organizing things that got messy during the delivery process; doing upkeep on the backend systems; doing strategic research; organizing customer feedback; taking training and doing career development.  

In a nutshell, you can be an amazing leader right now if you try to manage the energy levels, rather than the people. Certainly, people need to be managed as well, but you’ll agree that today’s workplace is not designed to be managed as much as to be coaxed into producing results. This requires a softer, more strategic touch. By remembering the 3 principles for saving energy you can enjoy the comfort of knowing that you’re leading from a place of personal and collective sustainability. 

There are people who specialize in bringing out leadership abilities in others as well as uncorking the team’s capacity for collaboration and healthy energy management. Agile coaches understand team dynamics intimately and have frameworks that can help manage the flow and collaboration. But not all Agile coaches can feel and coax the energy flow. So I recommend finding one that doesn’t coach from a place of methodology but from a place of feeling and intuitively knowing, like my friend Carlos

The workshops that he facilitates solve business problems that may involve getting people to work together collaboratively, or testing new ideas. But at the core lies his intimate understanding of how team energy dynamics work. And you can’t be a good coach if you don’t put people’s needs at the centre of your methodologies.

As Carlos tunes into workshop participants’ needs, he then knows when to engage the Move mode and push the participants a little out of their comfort zone. That’s where creativity flourishes. Have you ever tried striking a silly pose during a design sprint? Just kidding, that doesn’t happen at his workshops. Maybe it should? What do you think? Let me know in the comments. ?

And more importantly, sometimes MovePauseMirror modes can be engaged mechanistically. But in Carlos’s case, he recognizes how different activities have an impact on people’s energy levels and tracks people’s emotional states. So he knows when to modulate the energy requirements. 

Here are some pointers from him on how to do that: 

  • Be transparent with the workshop participants
  • Let people know where the high and low points are
  • Have strategies to support people during the low points

And just like that your participants too can leave your workshop feeling energized and satisfied with their contribution. 

Did you find this article inspiring? Send it to a friend you’d like to see thrive in a new good world.

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DISCLAIMER: Although everything I share is backed by science, it's not medical advice so please make sure to consult a medical professional.