The fallacy of leadership styles and traits
18 april 2015
Recently I gave a talk on the ScrumDayEurope 2014 conference. The talk was about how you can use game principles in combination with evidence based management (EBM) in your agile adoption. One of the hard points in evidence based management is that people tend to ignore evidence when that evidence clashes with their believes or observations .
Near the end of the talk I presented Richard Hackman’s thought experiment to discuss how hard evidence based management is. You can see the thought experiment below:
“Think for a moment about one of the finest teams you have every seen–one that performed superbly, that operated increasingly well over time, and whose members came away from the group experience wiser and more skilled than they were before. Next, think about a different group, one that failed to achieve its purposes, that deteriorated in performance capability over time, and whose members found the group experience far more frustrating than fulfilling. In your view, what is most responsible for the difference between these two teams?”
So, what do you think what is most responsible?
All of the approx. 50 people in the room argued that leadership or coach capabilities and traits are responsible for having a high performing team or a poor performing team. The people argued that a high performing team is a result of good leadership. The answer is understandable, because most of the popular articles we read say exactly that. Stronger even, we seem to experience it in our day-to-day work. A good leader, Scrum Master or agile coach can really make a difference on a team. Well, when we look at the evidence it is hard to find studies that suggest a cause and effect relationship going from a leadership style and leader’s traits to great team results . Professor J. R. Hackman says that the reason it is hard to find is maybe because it does not exist. On the other hand, there is evidence that seems to point in the opposite direction. The studies suggest that great teams will bring about great leaders and not vice versa. The often-incorrect linking of a team’s performance to the leader’s style or traits is called the “leader attribution error”.
The available evidence about motivation was also a real eye-opener for me. Recently a client of mine called me up and wanted to discuss one of her teams. Her team seemed not motivated in improving; the teams said something a long the line of “we are doing great and there is no need to change anything…” The team was clearly inside a happy bubble . She asked me “how can I motivate my team?”. Unfortunately I had to answer that she couldn’t motivate her team. The reason is probably not about her or about her team lead. Changing the team lead for example would probably be a futile action because people can only motivate themselves . The desire to do something cannot be imposed . What you can do is align personal goals with organizational goals by using the employee’s own need for fulfillment as the motivator.
The evidence seems to be there, but it is hard to accept that a leader’s traits and style has little influence on a team’s performance. Maybe even harder is accepting that you cannot motivate people directly, especially after watching Al Pacino’s motivational speech in the movie ‘Any Given Sunday’ 
To me this evidence is freaky and hard to accept, but what can we do?
Just like when adopting agile principles and techniques for improving your business, the thing you can do is to create the conditions necessary for great team performance and great leaders to emerge. (There are numerous models you can use for that.) In order to avoid adopting the wrong thing, you could collect evidence about results and act based on that evidence. A way to do that is to use EBM and face the truth about what works and what doesn’t in your organisation.
 Evidence Based Management, J. Pfeffer & R. Sutton. Harvard Business Review.
 Leading Teams, J.R. Hackman – 2002
 What makes for a great team http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2004/06/hackman.aspx
 Scrum Pattern: Beyond the Happy Bubble. https://sites.google.com/a/scrumplop.org/published-patterns/product-organization-pattern-language/beyond-the-happy-bubble.)
 The human side of Enterprise, D. Mc Gregor – 2006
 Punished by Rewards, A. Kohn – 1999
 Al Pacino motivational speech, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b7bgtu2O4E
Cesario works on large scale Agile transformations worldwide. Cesario is the author of the books Emergent and Scrum Patterns. He is also a Certified LeSS Trainer, a Professional Scrum Trainer™ and a certified coach.