Part 2: Understanding Lean-Agile Leadership

In part 1 of this series, we talked about what a mean-fragile leader looks like.

What is the opposite of the mean-fragile leader? I’ll get to that, but first a story.

Prior to serving on Connie (see part 1), I served on USS Boulder (LST-1190), a Naval Reserve ship supporting training of Naval reservists. What was I, an active duty officer, doing on a reserve ship? That’s a story for another post, and I promise you it’s an interesting one involving a dead New York City politician, emergency orders in the middle of the night, Bloods and Crips, and admirals.

It’s 1988. We’re at sea. Boulder had just returned to Little Creek Amphibious Base from Rosie Roads in Puerto Rico (formal name: Roosevelt Roads Naval Station) and a liberty stop in St. Thomas when we are ordered back to sea. Now we’re in the middle of the Atlantic sailing to Europe with a full complement of Marines and their gear aboard. We’ve been given emergency tasking to replace one of our active duty sister ships in the NATO “Teamwork 88” exercise off the coast of Norway. What the heck is a reserve ship doing replacing an active duty ship for a major NATO exercise? Our sister ship failed a major inspection (career-ender for their commanding officer) and we had more amphibious assault experience than any of our active duty sister ships.

It’s a beautiful day at sea with blue skies, gently rolling seas, and perfect temperatures. I’m on the bridge with our new commanding officer, Commander Schalk, who took command back in Rosie Roads about a month ago. He is speaking with one of the youngest and most junior crew members. “Seaman Smith, how is your mother doing? Is she recovering well from her surgery? How are you doing with studying for your petty officer’s exam?” Commander Schalk, with his ginger red hair and heartfelt when greeting you, inspired each of us. As I was learning this day in 1988, he took time to learn how to relate to each of us personally. He spent time learning about your family and dreams. Commander Schalk was the epitome of what I learned later is known as a servant leader.

The anabolic lean-agile servant leader is truly focused on the well-being of their people as well as the success of the mission. These are the leaders who inspire us, who see perceived failure as simply a necessary feedback loop in learning. The lean-agile leader focuses on improvement, not blame. For those of us lucky enough to work with or for these leaders, going to work is a challenge that we enjoy daily. Why? Because they are focused on our success and the group’s success, not simply on their success. They are firm and fair while expecting everyone to perform at their best. People are not stepping stones to be used to climb higher, but relationships to be developed for the sake of the relationship. Those relationships lead to trust at all levels, which creates a culture of trust, which unleashes the inner motivation of every member of the team.

Commander Schalk, a true lean-agile servant leader, treated all of us with respect. He led from his heart, which was his greatest strength. Morale improved dramatically when he took command. The crew was filled with pride and energy. The men (I served in the all-male combat fleet.) would have given their lives for him. Within a matter of weeks of him taking command of the ship, it was as if we had a different, more professional, more dedicated crew. That was the first time I experienced directly the power of true servant leadership. It’s a lesson that I’ve never forgotten. By the way, how can I claim Commander Schalk, as a Navy CO, was a lean-agile leader? The essence of lean-agile is about eliminating waste and unleashing the inner motivation of the team. As a reserve ship, we had half the crew and budget of our sister ships but were expected to perform the same missions, apart from the extended multi-month cruises.

In the corporate and consulting world, I experienced several examples of anabolic lean-agile leaders. I’m sure you’ve met them. They inspire us to do better. They know who we are and what we aspire to. They believe in us and our abilities when we don’t believe in ourselves. Most importantly, from a corporate perspective, these are the leaders who seem to lead groups with high morale, often in spite of difficult market situations, to create innovative software solutions to meet customer needs. Just as in the case of Commander Schalk, I’ve experienced the impact these servant leaders have on the morale and efficiency of an organization.

So how do you know if you are a lean-agile or mean-fragile leader? The fact is no one is all of one or the other. The issue is to what extent one dominates the other and do you want to develop more as a lean-agile leader while eliminating, or at least significantly reducing the mean-fragile leader traits in you?

Every leader, in fact, every one of us, has aspects of both, some so much so that you can recognize them in the middle ground – the lean(ish)-fragile leader.

Lean(ish)-fragile leaders are often initially mistaken as lean-agile leaders, but over time (sometimes short, sometimes longer) you quickly realize they are nice and ineffective.

Missed Part 1? Click here.

Part 3: 11 Questions to Ask Yourself To Shift Your Energy From Mean-Fragile to Lead-Agile of this 3-part series will be published next Tuesday.