The technology industry is experiencing a shakeup of expectations the likes of which it has not faced since the 2008 financial crisis, and both practitioners and organizations are reconsidering the choices they’ve made. Now is an excellent time to consider frameworks that can help you become a more holistic contributor to your organization’s output.
Although it’s only one piece of the puzzle, the debate of how much hands-on development work technical leaders should do has surfaced quite a few learnings that we can adapt to the purpose of being more adaptable leaders.
In this Guide, you will learn:
What adaptive, directive, and servant leadership styles are.
How you can adopt adaptive leadership principles.
Why self-reflection is so important in adaptive leadership.
Influential technology writers such as Charity Majors and Camille Fournier have written many words about how technology leaders can make certain choices to reassert their technology bonafides. For instance, one metaphorical device used by Majors refers to the so-called pendulum swing of choosing between engineering management and individual contributor work in an iterative fashion during one’s career. The theory is that alternating between these choices, even for a single iteration, is informative to both functions, and greatly rewarding to the individual and their professional development. In this article, I will not challenge the premise that technology leaders should write more code, do more operations work, go on-call, or do any other “deep technology work.” Nor will I argue that leaders should do those things. Rather, I want to zoom out and challenge the notion of the singular leadership style as dogma by applying the pendulum swing metaphor to another false dichotomy in management: servant leadership vs. directive leadership.
Say more about that…
Engineering leaders that have been on either side of the interviewing table recently may be very familiar with the question of their leadership style and philosophy. Whoever asks is typically looking for signals on how nuanced the responder can be. Typical responses take the form of a binary response between servant leadership and something that we will call directive leadership for the purposes of this article.
The implied juxtaposition of these two leadership styles also typically connotes that they are polar opposites with very little overlap or relation beyond their nature as opposites. The case for servant leadership has been made quite prolifically in recent years with many books, articles, and case studies written on the subject. As a refresher, author Will Kenton defines servant leadership as “a leadership style and philosophy whereby an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—to achieve authority rather than power.”
Though this is not the only definition of servant leadership, nor is it canonical, I enjoy it because it directly points to the consideration of power dynamics we will cover in this guide. Where the servant leader is expected to be one who optimizes for harmony and understanding, the directive leader is often considered the opposite.
Though there are far fewer books on directive leadership, there are plenty of scholarly articles that give the subject some review. Famously, a paper by Jan P. Muczyk and Bernard C. Reimann, both then at Cleveland State University, tells an apocryphal story of a manager needing to immediately comport to directive leadership to save their company. As the story goes, Gerry Gladstone becomes the newly installed president of Allied Machinery Company. Gerry previously relied on heavy delegation and a form of servant leadership due to the superior quality and rigor of the team he previously managed. However, he discovers that his team at Allied has less initiative and is more accustomed to direction and oversight than he was used to. His former management style, honed in a successful company with good support structures, didn’t work at a struggling company that lacked the same support. This new situation challenged his assumptions about what effective leadership truly means, and challenged his comportment to a singular style of engagement to make the impact his company so desperately needed. Muczyk and Reimann use a comparative device to establish the need for directive leadership by presenting it as the opposite of participative leadership.
Another way of thinking of this form of leadership could be through a constructive comparison of democratic and autocratic leadership. Though the former may sound harsh at first, consider the example of a fire chief who is attempting to control a building that is ablaze and threatening to burn down adjacent buildings on the same block. That leader likely has neither the time nor patience to exhaustively hear all suggestions on how best to control the blaze. Surely they do not want a culture of organizational silence, but there is also an expectation of high competency that affords them the trust and support to confidently make decisions on behalf of all of the firefighters attempting to save lives and property. With this example, let’s accept that there is a place for both servant leadership and directive leadership.
However, we’re here to challenge the notion that this leadership choice is binary. Said a different way: that a leader chooses to be a servant leader or a directive leader and never the twain shall meet. Case closed, issue decided, here is my “working with me” document and begone! That is not a very satisfying state of the world, nor is it a nuanced way to manage highly competent technical workers engaged in the creative pursuit of orchestrating symbolic code into delightful experiences for their users. Borrowing again from Charity Majors, let us attempt to reapply the useful idiom of pendulum swings and realize that there are many spots along the swing that may be useful situationally for leaders.
Source: Diagram created from an original image at Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.
With many approaches in between being a deliberately directive or servant leader, one quite difficult question remains: How does one remain authentic and effective while still giving those they are supporting some level of consistency? After all, no one likes working with a person who appears to change their mind and directives on a whim. The nuance here may not be obvious at first, but it is the most important point.
Self-reflection and adaptability
The way to best align yourself to support your co-workers and manage their expectations is to be keenly aware of your operating context, and to self-reflect deeply. Neither imperative is simple, but both are rewarding pursuits. Awareness is your ability to judge what your team needs from you to accomplish a goal or task at hand, and adapt your style accordingly. This seems like an easy enough assignment, yet the most critical thing is validating your awareness through a tight signal loop. We nominally refer to those signals as feedback. Many leaders are generous with their feedback, and many say that they are open to receiving feedback at any time. Truly exceptional leaders create an environment where feedback is a rich, bi-directional, and high-bandwidth component of the overall organizational operating system.
An additional device of impactful leadership is personal reflection. Here we return to the topic of power dynamics. Every leader needs to understand that there are clear power dynamics at play when they are communicating with reports, other leaders, and leaders to whom they themselves report. What you say and how you say it matter greatly. In addition to a tight feedback loop, having the space to consider how your actions and words are perceived by others is paramount. Tooling for introspection abound, including but not limited to these options:
Formal 360-degree reviews
Leadership or executive coaching
Leader feedback sessions from a partner in human resources
These options are not exhaustive, and making use of multiple resources for introspection serially or concurrently is wonderful if you can afford the time.
You can use awareness and self-reflection as the foundation of a framework for adaptive leadership alongside a set of axiomatic principles to consider how best to show up for your teams and organization. Adaptive leadership is hard, and that is exactly what makes the continued pursuit of mastery so impactful. All good leaders have areas where they shine. If your persona anchors on being an exceptionally tactical technologist, great. If you are a brilliant strategic thinker that can wear multiple hats, that’s amazing. If you happen to be amongst the strongest organizational builders in your company and you plan strategically years ahead, that is so very wonderful. Each of these still requires you to be aware and adaptive to see your team's success permeate through each of your actions. Do not be any one thing or any one type of leader. Be the leader your company needs.