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A view from Sue Unerman: be a more Agile leader and serve your team

As lockdown and its emotional and mental trials continue, we must all look out for one another, and that must start at the top with 'servant leaders'.

As we enter week whatever it is of lockdown, and the winter wind chills us to the bone and the rain drizzles outside our windows, it is more crucial than ever to look after each other.

We are personally being tested in all kinds of ways emotionally and mentally.  Relationships are under strain because we have never before spent 24 hours a day with each other for such a prolonged period.

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People living on their own, who might normally prefer this, are vulnerable now that they are on their own all day and all of the night. Checking in on mental welfare and ensuring that we really talk about our feelings and our vulnerabilities is crucial.

Of course, this doesn’t just mean asking your team how they are. Although this is more needed now than ever. You need to actively manage their workload, too. It means, for instance, never setting a deadline without ensuring that the person it is set for has the time – within their working day and given their other commitments – to deliver the task and to deliver it well.

In adland, there is too much emphasis on managing upwards, and in normal times that might be OK.  At the moment, it definitely is not enough.

A good enough leader today needs to go further. In fact, it might be possible to help your team cope with the stress of modern life by giving them reassurance about work. Bayer general manager Oya Canbas has said: “I don’t want anyone to be anxious at work. Can work create a sense of satisfaction that even helps people to deal with such difficult times?”

This type of management might well not come instinctively and may not be your own experience.  There is, however, a type of working practice where this is embedded.

This is working in an Agile way.

There are several ways in which Agile transforms work. With references to scrums, sprints and burndown, the language of Agile and its ceremonies can seem very foreign.  The entire rhythm of the week’s meetings is different; meetings have different names and purposes.  Progress is continuous and, done well, Agile cannot fail to improve effectiveness, efficiency and positivity.

Agile also changes the very idea of a leader.  An Agile leader is a servant leader.

What does this mean?  It means that, as the boss, you do not act like the boss. You are there to serve the team who work for you, not the other way round.

Servant leadership is the practice of leading through service to the team – so, in other words, you’re the leader, you’re the boss, but your immediate customers are actually your team members.  As a servant leader, you’re there to serve them as well as you can and help them get what they need so that they can do the best job that they possibly can.

Agile leadership means not just reassuring your team emotionally, it means actively ensuring that their working day is no longer or more stressful than it should be.

In these difficult times, to lead is to serve.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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