blog, Call to action

The care and feeding of servant leaders

I heard a senior coach say tonight at a meetup that she “had to help all those people (teams) because there’s so much struggle out there.” I heard in that statement something familiar: As a coach, I give a great deal in order to help someone understand (the “why” behind it), provide another frame (perhaps one of empathy for leadership challenges and how team can help them by providing concise information), or guide a team through an unfamiliar practice (say, visualizing and optimizing workflow). Too often, I have limped home from multi-day facilitations to curl up and try to replenish my energy so that I can go back to work again.

The balancing act

I watch my patience wane when I’m stretched too thin. I can still think about systems when under stress, but I tend to overlook–to everyone’s detriment–the primary building unit of these systems: messy humans. From 5,000 feet, that developer who is struggling with change can easily look like an impediment–a problem, instead of an integral piece of the whole who is worthy of attention. When I’m in this mental space, people become abstractions and I feel disconnected from them–and they stand back from me.

On the other hand, when centered enough to be mindful, I become a sort of magnet. People start to pull me aside to ask questions and share things they have observed. I choose my moments to speak with more awareness and empathy, and as a result, what I’m saying is better received, often with smiles and curiosity. People also are more willing to challenge me, because I have the bandwidth to genuinely appreciate that they are surfacing an alternate line of thought. This builds trust and mutual respect that I can tap into when I need a team’s help to move the needle on something. From this stance, I can best influence growth and learning.

Boundaries and balance

So, the question becomes, how do I stay balanced? I have taken inspiration from Brené Brown’s research. In her book Daring Greatly, she writes:

The most compassionate people that I’ve ever interviewed…happened to be the most boundaried. They happened to be the people who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on.”

In short, to have enough personal fuel to act compassionately, these people actively manage their commitments and energy.

Does that sound like a way to accomplish sustainable pace to you? It does to me.

Balancing as a community

So how do servant leaders actively manage our energy outputs and inputs effectively? We can start by practicing what we preach, and limiting our WIP (work in progress). We can also focus on refilling our tanks with family and play time and 8 hours of sleep. But I keep wondering if, as a profession in which we all struggle with stress and burnout, we might be missing another valuable opportunity.

There are some formal support networks for coaches and scrum masters, but most of them cost money and time. A lucky few of us have supportive teams within our company, but my experience on my last three coaching teams has been that we’re all functioning fairly independently to execute on organizational objectives. Our days are filled with tactics and logistics, with only occasional moments of really talking about the psychological impact of giving to others all day.

The value of peers

Where else do we look for thoughtful support? Conferences or local meetups may come to mind. But what really happens? How often do you attend an Agile event to passively learn new concepts or find a new job opportunity? How often do we leave with little more than a new LinkedIn connection or Twitter feed to follow?

I want to challenge this behavior. When we engage this way, we make each other into commodities, i.e. valuable to one another primarily because of economic value. This seems like antithetical behavior from a bunch of people who work in a field that’s supposed to be rooted in individuals and interactions.

What if, at the meetup next week, we all commit to showing up with our whole selves? What if we ask a question about how to support one another? What if we take a little of our networking time and change it into connection time?

Imagine a world in which, when that drained senior coach speaks her truth, we all take a collective pause to acknowledge that she might need her tank refilled. Imagine that, following a round of applause and appreciation, those of us with a little extra to give invite her for a cup of tea and conversation.

Want to join me? I could use some darjeeling with honey.