Psychological Safety 58: Servant Leadership

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety 58: Servant Leadership

The swedish warship vasa

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are amazing. This week discusses servant leadership, Swedish warships, being “neurodistinct”, and product development.

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This newsletter is sponsored by Conflux.

Conflux is the leading business consultancy worldwide helping organisations to navigate fast flow in software. We help organisations to adopt and sustain proven, modern practices for delivering software rapidly and safely.

Many organisations today are stuck using ways of working from a bygone age. In this article, Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, takes a look at why knowledge work needs a new approach in which psychological safety is a key ingredient.

News, Research, and Opinion

I love this point by Michael Barin on Twitter. Similarly to how we’re facing some semantic diffusion of the interpretation of the term psychological safety; the “Leaders Eat Last” philosophy and the role of the “servant leader” has been distorted over time to subordinate leaders’ needs below that of the team they work in. That’s not the intent of the phrase: the intention is indeed to prioritise the needs of the team, but not to the detriment of your own. Simon Sinek (who wrote Leaders Eat Last), and Robert Greenleaf, who first coined “servant leadership” in a 1970 essay called “The Servant as Leader” were both attempting to counter a growing trend of venerating leaders who use their teams as disposable means to climb the corporate ladder.

Greenleaf’s 1970 essay is an excellent read. This statement, though written over 50 years ago, still rings true today: “The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders. Too many settle for being critics and experts. There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into “research,” too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see “the problem” as residing in here and not out there.

However, every single leader and positive example in Greenleaf’s essay is a man, and women are mentioned just three times – once as a wife, once as an adulteress, and once as a nurse. Greenleaf’s observations on servant leadership are powerful, but (my interpretation of) the way this essay presents the role of women unfortunately reflects the worse aspects of the era in which it was written. 

The above is an excellent quote from Simon Sinek’s book, and in case you haven’t read “Leaders Eat Last” (I’d recommend it), here’s a great write up by Filipe Silva.

The Vasa. Photo credit: Jorge Láscar
This week I was honoured to be invited to run a psychological safety workshop for the folks at Agile Finland, and amongst the fantastic interaction and discussion, we talked about the Swedish warship “Vasa” which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628The disaster has even inspired the term “Vasa Syndrome”: where issues in communication and management cause projects to fail catastrophically. In the case of the Vasa, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, constantly meddled with the design despite having no expertise in shipbuilding, and various parties involved failed to communicate effectively, partly out of fear of incurring the wrath of Adolphus. The case has been studied and published in a 2001 paper: Vasa Syndrome: Insights from a 17th-Century New-Product Disaster, by Eric H. Kessler, Paul E. Bierly, III and Shanthi Gopalakrishnan. Sadly, the paper is not open access. If you would like a copy, contact me and I’ll help you out.

The paper highlights 7 core issues that comprise Vasa Syndrome:

1: Lack of external learning capability
2: Goal confusion
3: Obsession with speed
4: Feedback system failure
5: Communication barriers
6: Poor organizational memory
7: Top-management meddling

Despite no specific mention of psychological safety in the paper (though the authors do allude to it, and we should remember it was published in 2001), I’ve no doubt at all that a lack of psychological (and to a degree, probably physical) safety was a key causal component of this disaster. 

The story of the Vasa reminds me of a more modern tale retold in this clip from “Pentagon Wars” about the development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle:

Psychological Safety In the Workplace:

 This is a great interview with Jim Hogan at Google, who is both the Principal Innovation Strategist at Google Cloud, and the VP of Accessibility in Technology for Google’s Disability Alliance. Jim talks about the “Transform with Kindness” programme, where managers learn about psychological safety and how to foster it in their teams, and how his experience of being autistic has made life and work hard, but also how it’s helped him mentor, support and lead others. I was also introduced to a new word (for me) in this piece: neurodistinct(originally coined by Tim Goldstein, I think), which I love and will endeavour to use (instead of neurodivergent) from now on.

I was really honoured to be invited to speak with Jim and Liron on the Beyond Tech Skills Podcast. We dived deep into the impact of a lack of psychological safety in tech teams, and how to go about remedying it. I really enjoyed recording this – we had a fantastic conversation, and I hope you enjoy listening to it 🙂

Here’s a fab and really comprehensive article from the folks at Join about psychological safety in the workplace, how it fosters high performance in teams and underpins inclusion and diversity.

Things to do and try:  This is great, by Jeff Gothelf, on OKR Leadership and creating a safe environment for learning, and making making learning the path of least resistance. I like this point that people should work in environments where they get “equally as excited about killing an idea that isn’t going to work.” I was lucky enough to recently find Jeff’s (along with Josh Seiden“Sense And Respond” book in a local charity shop, and I can recommend it if you’re early on the path of strategic and agile product development.

Jeff and Josh are probably better known for their incredible work on Lean UX, which changed the working landscape for designers, and switched the focus from deliverables to holistic user experience, and applied the Minimum Viable Product concept to User Experience (UX).

This week’s poem:

My life has been the poem I would have writ, by Henry David Thoreau 

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

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