The one key thing that you should do as a leader

  • Scope:
  • Business
  • Culture and People

but your probably don’t do

How often do you hear that “in our organization, we need more Leadership!”? At Tooploox we hear it a lot as using Holacracy requires a great deal of leadership and decision making in every role. And it’s not an easy thing to do – after all, we need to work on leadership skills and attitude across the whole organization.

Find out how we tackle it. 

Warning. This article is based on my personal experience, not scientific research. Your experience will be different – and that’s perfectly normal.

The one key behavior of a leader

Take a wild guess and try to pick the one key thing I had in mind that you should do as an ‘experienced’ leader:

  • Taking the ‘big picture’ and communicating it to others
  • Making decisions within your role’s autonomy and taking responsibility for them
  • Talking to people, building relationships and giving feedback

Now, if you already know this kind of cheap trick, then you guessed correctly – there is actually a hidden, fourth option. In my opinion, the most important thing a leader should do is to… create more leaders. And by this I actually mean to build up the leadership capacity in a team.

Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.
– Tom Peters

Don’t get me wrong – those three elements mentioned earlier are also significant to act effectively as a leader in a group or a team and to execute the organization’s purpose. But in order to take the organization to an ‘anti-fragile’ state, you need to be prepared for a situation where the experienced leaders will eventually move on and leave your company. There is nothing unusual about it – most people crave for new experiences and other places they can support. You can either invest a ton in salaries, benefits, amazing projects (well, you should invest in them to some extent anyway) to keep them around a while longer OR you can help to create a self-sufficient system where more experienced leaders stimulate others to grow and use their leadership potential in the future. 

It isn’t exactly anything new or revolutionary. It would seem like something that all organizations want to do. You get more leadership, proactivity, inspiration, people work harder with smiles on their faces – what’s not to like 🙂 So why is it so rare? Because there are some hurdles along the way.

The hurdles

First, there is the structure of POWER within the hierarchical organizations. More often than not you find more managers than actual leaders, and even the leaders have little incentive to develop others in that field. After all, why would you train someone who could eventually replace you? A drastic example might be Polish universities (as experienced by my wife), where the old professors cling to their seats of power and do nothing to upskill younger scientists (and sometimes actively block them). 

In other companies, there is little to no incentive for leaders to actually mentor other leaders. Empowering others to fulfil their potential is not as ‘flashy’ as actual business-related work such as making decisions, pushing forward and delivering business results. If the organization appreciates mostly the ‘delivery’ aspect of work, you tend to optimize just that. 

And sometimes you see ‘leadership programs’ that are based on a race to take a managerial position at the end. They sound like “we have this program so that you may dream that someday you might join it to advance in our ranks… but until then – work hard”. In my opinion, this is just another form of control instead of the development of leaders. 

But OK, let’s assume you work in an organization that is more leadership-driven – one that commits to support self-organization. Here, at Tooploox we use Holacracy to stimulate extreme adaptability and self-organization (where leadership is crucial in every role). And it’s still not an easy task to do.

Why? Mainly because unlocking leadership potential requires, in my experience, time, dedication and certain skills (related to mentoring and team coaching). Leadership cannot be simply delegated (“You are the leader now. Have fun”) or taught during trainings – I’ve tried, believe me 🙂 Many misconceptions about self-organizing teams actually stem from the following situation. A leader/manager leaves a team on their own and just asks them to self-organize. Then, when things are not ‘magically’ moving forward, the leader/manager rides in on a white horse and saves the day once more. This assumption is flawed because you cannot simply leave a person with additional accountabilities and expect they will manage from day one.

What actually works

So what does work when building the capacity for leadership in a team? For me, it is a combination of group and individual work:

1.Supporting group development process. 

Many things have already been said about it. It all boils down  to sailing through the stormy waters of conflict, distrust and finally building the environment where it’s ok to say “I made a mistake”. Feedback culture and team building are your true friends 🙂 You can read more on how to distribute decision making here and on team development process supported by scientific research here.

As a young scrum master, I used to focus only on supporting the group as a whole. “There is no ‘I’ in a Team” I figured out. I assumed that everyone in the team should be equal and the team as a whole should be responsible for achieving the goal. But this was not the best way to create an ‘anti-fragile’ team, as the leadership capacity needs to be built up individually in order for the group to work as an actual team.

2.Working individually with potential leaders. 

Now, there is a myth that leaders are born and some just have the right character traits. Everyone has some capacity for leadership – just each of us of a different kind. Some are the quiet, introverted types that support the work of others with a lot of empathy, while some are full of energy and inspire the team to move towards a common goal. There is no magic formula ,unfortunately, as how to develop each and everyone. I usually work a couple of months with potential leaders while working with the whole team at the same time. I encourage them to use their strengths, provide feedback (appreciation mostly) and some tools to overcome their limitations. And of course, every case is different.


I’ve worked with different types of leaders but here are two strong examples.

The first one was a developer that already had a lot of natural authority within the team. He was usually the one who focused on assessing different paths and risks of a solution. At the same time, he frequently doubted his own decisions – he just saw too many (real or imagined) dangers ahead. We worked individually on techniques to make better decisions (like Cost of Delay) and during our work I would frequently ask him about the next course of action we should take and underlined the sense of urgency for a given situation (which prompted him to actually make decisions).

Also, when facilitating team meetings I tried to highlight the positive aspects of a decision and have the meetings always end with a decision regarding the next course of action. This led to a situation where the team actually moved faster because they have learned to accept some risks – all with the help of a new leader. 

Another example is again a developer, this time from Tooploox. She was relatively new in the team back then and usually kept to herself. She would focus on her tasks and I could tell she was rather an introvert, like me. At the same time, during team meetings she had no trouble pointing out things that made little sense to her – solutions that she disagreed with. Similarly, during meetings with the client, she would occasionally ask difficult questions and was not afraid to request things from our client that would remove our blockers. 

I decided to get to know her better, to understand what her motivations were and how she saw the team (and her place in it). Also, I used every opportunity to thank her for situations where her involvement helped the whole team. I asked her to substitute for me in facilitation of team meetings so she could become more comfortable with being in the spotlight. This led to her being one of the essential members of the team – one that integrates work towards sprint goal and challenges other developers and the client to deliver the missing pieces. All that while keeping her gentle, quiet determination and empathy.

Final words

All in all, it boils down to two things: giving appreciation and providing a challenge.

And that is exactly what I would advise any leader to do, starting from today. Even if you don’t have the skills (or time) to work for months in a mentoring relationship and coach the whole team in parallel, you can still help to empower other potential leaders by pointing out the examples of positive behavior and inviting them to share your challenges. 

Did it all work for me every time, you might ask. Absolutely not. I had my share of mistakes and poor judgement that led to frustrated people along the way. My limited skills also provided some challenges – I still have a lot to learn in various areas of leadership. But currently, I don’t see any other way to scale leadership throughout the whole organization than to entrust the leaders around and let them thrive.

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