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  • Sarah Stewart

What Servant Leadership Means to Me Part 2: Fishing with Dynamite

Say you’re supposed to help some people get fish. You can just buy some fish and give it to them. Better, you can teach them how to fish—show them how to use a fishing rod or tie a fly. These ideas both go back to the old "teach a man to fish" cliché.

Alternatively, you can offer them fishing poles, bait, and nets, and encourage them to figure it out for themselves. Good leaders help people to help themselves.

But a true Servant Leader will ask the team what they need to start fishing in first place. And the team might say "we need poles," or maybe "we need nets."

But what if they ask for dynamite?

That's a scary idea, isn’t it? You don't want them to blow their fingers off! But you also don't want to discourage creative ideas. So, what do you do?

You jointly design a safe experiment. Give them a very tiny amount of dynamite, and (without beer and with proper safety equipment) take them to a small pond or swimming pool with some fish in it, where they still learn but can't do a lot of damage if something goes wrong. This also assumes that fishing with dynamite is legal where you are—your mileage may vary.

To put it another way, if my team wants to try something unconventional, I do my best to let them experiment in safety. I encourage them to take a sprint, or even a single user story, to try it out. I make sure they can experiment without fear of criticism if things go bad. Fail fast and fail loud, sure.

But fail safely too. If there's concern from anyone that they’ll disrupt the project with their ideas, then I ask that they first build a proof of concept or a prototype. If it works, we put more effort into it. I don't care if it succeeds or fails as long as they learn something. My hope is that the overall project gets better as a result.

I trust my team to do the right thing, in the right way for them. I don't care how visibly "productive" they appear moment to moment. If they show me a solid demo at the end of the sprint that pushes us measurably closer to completing our business objective and goals, then I'm happy. I don't care if they spend the bulk of the time coding, talking, thinking, or drawing pictures on a white board. I’m only disappointed if they have nothing to demonstrate at the end of the sprint or they haven't learned anything new from a failure.

My job as a Servant Leader is to give them the environment they need to successfully, and safely, experiment and learn. That’s fishing with dynamite.

(Yeah, okay, I doubt I’m radical enough to encourage actual dynamite fishing…and yet, doesn’t it sound cool?)

In Summary, as a Servant Leader you should:

  • Encourage your team to experiment

  • Provide safe spaces for them to experiment in

  • Focus on the outcomes of what your team delivers, not the way they produce their deliverables.

  • Focus on what your team learns from successes and failures, not if they succeed or fail.

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