Elastic Leadership

An elastic leader is a leader who has a natural leadership style but can stretch to fit the specific needs of his or her team. The elastic leader is the opposite of a one-size-fits-all leader.

An elastic leader is necessary to cultivate a great team. A team’s leader must adjust his/her leadership style depending on the makeup of the team, style and phase of the project. For a team that’s in crisis mode, a more directive leadership style is needed. With mature team members repeating a project that has been successfully completed before, a more hands-off, coaching approach is needed to allow team members to grow.

How to Know What Elastic Leadership Role To Take

Elastic leadership is about team context. The leader must determine the “You Are Here” development of the team on the map of maturity and lead with an appropriate style.  

  • Novice-to-a-Task Teams who don’t yet possess the skill to accomplish or manage a project need a more directive approach. (Note, I didn’t say novice teams. An otherwise mature team can be novices in a new area or given a new task). Give them a smaller decision space in which to operate.
  • Mid-Level Maturity Teams that possess some of the knowledge needed can be coached more than directed.
  • Full Maturity Teams need to be facilitated as they are challenged to raise up new leaders who can replicate their abilities. This is an opportunity to encourage mature team members to stop merely doing the tasks and to reproduce, creating “disciples” who can take on the task for themselves.  Mature teams tend to be self-organizing.

The leader must constantly assess the maturity of the team, which can change with each project and each challenge. A team who is mature in relation to a task and can create 1,000 websites in their sleep might not have any experience in launching a marketing campaign for their new mobile application. Therefore, in the application design aspect, the team needs to be led as fully matured team, and in the marketing aspect, the team needs to be led as newbies.

If you lead a novice-to-a-task team as if they are fully mature (assuming they have answers and knowledge they don’t possess), they will often be fearful to admit the limits of their knowledge and not only guess at what to do, they will often guess wrong with poor results to show.

If you lead a mature team as if they are a novice team, they will resent being coddled and feel like they are paid pawns. They will soon leave your organization to find something more challenging.

Novice teams exist in chaos. They don’t know how to put the initial structures or schema together to determine the information they know from what they don’t know. The first step in leading a novice team is to help them determine a process structure that helps them understand what they still have left to learn. The elasitc leader may then begin directing teh team in acquiring the basic knowledge needed.

Mature teams, even when facing a new task, can quickly assemble the structure and schemas to determine what they don’t know about the new project because they have done so for other projects in the past. The leader in this situation merely ensures the team IS working through the structure. Chaos tends to be given structure by a mature team and a process of-self-organization quickly occurs.

Elastic leadership can be scary for leaders and influencers. Leaders who naturally gravitate to a hands-off leadership style may feel guilty and feel dictatorial for having to become a bit more directive of the team. Those who are command and control type leaders may feel like things are wildly out of control when they don’t provide micro-directives to a mature team.

How a New View of Influence and Leadership Can Help You Become More Elastic

Roy Osherove, scrum and agile software development manager, writes:

The role of the team leader is not to solve the team’s problems. In this situation, the only person who learns is the team leader and additionally having the control over all topics, caused the team leader to be a bottleneck.

The role of the team leader is to get the team to grow. If you allow people to grow, the value delivered by the team grows, and the commitment of the team to work effectively and efficiently grows as well. Your team is motivated internally as a result of feeling loyal and happy.

Your goal as a leader is to mature the team, not solve problems. This understanding revolutionizes leadership whether as a parent, coach, academic professor or business executive.  The team’s goal is to solve problems; the leader’s goal is to grow the team to the maturity in which they solve these problems more effectively and efficiently. Build people, and the problems will be solved. Solve problems, and the leader will never build anything beyond his/her own capabilities and control.

Practical Ways to Grow the Team

Now that you know your role, how do you practically accomplish it? You must transfer knowledge from the mature team members to novices. There are several ways that this can be done. Every team has a member who is the Mature Knowledge Holder (MKH). This is the sole person on the team who possesses the knowledge needed to complete the tasks.  Osherove works with software development teams and suggests the following, which can be adapted for almost any context.

1.  Pairing

Ask the MKH to pair up for at least 30 minutes a day with one other person on the team. During that time, the less experienced person will do most of the hands-on work with the MKH coaching and sharing information.

This pairing will be conducted until the less experienced person knows how to accomplish one task without the MKH's help. Then either move to a new task, or have the newly minted person stop pairing with the MKH and pair with some other member of the team to achieve the same goals.

The best way to learn is to teach, and through teaching, the new person will have learned the new task in a much deeper way.

2.  Make the MKH Teachers

Have the MKH be in charge of a project that requires multiple people to accomplish tasks relating to the MKH’s area of knowledge. Then make sure part of that project is the MKH teaching others on how to accomplish those tasks.

3.  Prevent the MKH from Working on Area of Knowledge

Ask the MKH not to work in his/her area of knowledge for one day a week, while others on the team try to take over. This might feel scary, but it is a great way to quickly figure out what your team does and doesn’t know. Then set about having them learn.

4. Create Apprentices

Assign a full time apprentice to the expert and make sure they pair together as much as possible.

Elastic Leadership and the KII®

The agile, elastic leader will by necessity possess a high empowering score on their Keller Influence Indictator® scores. Empowerment is your ability to support peers and to share knowledge with them. If you struggle with elasticity in your leadership style, the KII® will provide a benchmark of your current abilities to empower others, and then offer practical ways to develop this ability. Since this ability directly correlates with your elasticity, as your score in this area rises, so will your effectiveness as a leader.

Take the Keller Influence Indicator® today to learn your Empowering score, as well as scores for Confidence, Commitment, Courage, Passion, Trustworthiness, and Likeability and start the journey to proactively increase your influence.

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From regional manager to international executive with quadruple the pay, Karen Keller’s unique blueprint carefully outlined the step-by-step process for creating high-impact influence and let me know when I was being influenced in a way that didn’t serve me.
Lloyd Moore
Global Director Supplier Quality & Development - Lear Corporation – South Carolina