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Fire all your managers: 'Supportive Leadership' is management's new role

All-knowing bosses have had their day. Managing today's knowledge worker requires 'Supportive Leadership,' according to expert Joseph Flahiff.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CIO Decisions: Mastering the cloud contract:

The role of the IT manager is not what it used to be, and the people who are playing the old role need to adopt a new approach as a leader or get out of the business of managing people.

What is a manager? According to the top search result in Google, a manager is "a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization."

The key words here are controlling or administering. What is not stated in this definition is that management is a means to an end. The end is to make the company or similar organization more profitable and productive.

Traditional management works this way:

I have a project that I need done. As manager, I figure out what needs to be accomplished to complete the project. I decide the best way to do it based on my extensive experience in the industry. I decide who is best to do what part based on my knowledge of my staff, and their skills and interests. I assign that work to them and make sure they start it, do a good job at it and complete it. I check their work to ensure the quality. In the end, I coordinate all the pieces and make sure it all works together in the end.

This approach worked when the work to be done was physical -- manual -- labor, such as assembly and mass production.

The leader doesn't figure out what needs to be done; instead, the leader asks the team.

In the world of knowledge work, productivity and profitability are directly linked to creativity. There is nothing routine in knowledge work; our teams need to be creating something new, and inventing new and better ways of doing things. Unfortunately, the act of controlling and administering inhibits and stifles creativity. In the now famous candle experiment, as performed by Princeton professor Samuel Glucksberg in 1962, the presence of monetary rewards and time pressure have been shown to have a negative correlation on creative problem solving. A new paradigm is necessary to get people who are doing knowledge work to increase productivity and profitability. In place of this traditional management, businesses and organizations need to put in place a system of Supportive Leadership:

Supportive Leadership is an approach to influence that gives authority to the people doing the work, and leader(s) provide support to the people who do the work. 

Change your language

In his previous column, Three steps to creating a great senior leadership team, Joseph Flahiff advised CIOs to practice these behaviors when dealing with their senior IT teams:

1. Lead with questions, not answers

3. Check in, don't check up

3. Communicate the 'why'

So, what does this look like in practical terms? Imagine the same project that we discussed as a traditional manager, but now under the Supportive Leadership model;

There is a project that we need to get done. As the leader, I call my team together and share with them the reasons for the work that we need to do, and the constraints that we are under to get it done. I simply ask, "What do you think we should do?" Then, I shut up. The team brainstorms ideas. The team selects the best approach. The team decides what to do and takes the work on themselves. We all understand the drivers, so the team reviews each other's work to ensure quality. All along, the team talks with each other to collaboratively ensure that it all works together. I, as a leader, support, encourage, remove obstacles and get them the necessary resources.

You will note a few key differences. First, and probably most subtle, is that it is not me and them, but we. The work is owned by the whole team, not by the manager. This may look like a simple shift in language, but it is much more than that: 21st century workers want to be involved; we want ownership. A subtle shift in language can create a dramatic psychological shift in ownership. Changing your language is just the first step towards a supportive leadership style -- it's not about you.

Get out of the way

Next, notice that the leader doesn't figure out what needs to be done; instead, the leader asks the team. When I suggest this to leaders, they always worry that the team won't come up with the best solution, which is really just a fear of losing control. The team will come up with the ideas you had, and chances are, they will come up with ideas you hadn't ever thought of before. This fear that they won't come up with the right solution really blinds leaders to the true benefit of shifting ownership from the manager to the team. When the team owns the work, the team rallies and digs in to get it done. No one has to motivate them; they are intrinsically motivated.

They will not only figure out what needs to be done, but they also will take the work on themselves. Once again, the ownership shifts to the team. When we take on work ourselves, we have a sense of responsibility. We say to ourselves, "This wasn't forced upon me, I volunteered to do it."

In this kind of relationship, the job of the Supportive Leader is to share the purpose, vision and constraints of the work, and to give the team the authority to do the work while providing the resources necessary to be successful. Finally, the job of the Supportive Leader is to smooth the path by removing obstacles in the way of the team.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects, Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, start-ups and publicly traded firms, where he has been lauded by executives as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations.

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This was last published in September 2015

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Does your company follow the Supportive Leader model?
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Sure, some people fit the definition of a supportive leader. I think that there will always be some of the more old-school manager types, though. In my opinion, a supportive leader is a much more difficult role, and people who are a good at it are few and far between. 
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I think most organizations will find it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to jump straight from the traditional management style directly to the supportive leadership style for a couple of reasons. First, teams that are accustomed to the traditional style are often hesitant to step up and use the authority supportive leadership is handing over to them. Maybe they’ve been controlled for too long, or maybe they don’t trust the political environment of the organizations. Another reason is that management and leadership are two distinct types of authority which derive power from different sources. Management’s authority comes from the organization itself, whereas leadership comes from the people being led, meaning you can’t just rebrand a manager as a supportive leader.
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Facilitating a discussion is not the entirety of a manager's role. A company requires some controls to costs, resourcing and tools being specified. A manager administers those quality controls as specified. The team gets the why and what of the objectives but the process they arrive at the solution, could be a very quick and easy alternative band-aid solution, which is not always the best for the project. The best result under the opportunities provided is what an experienced manager should achieve from his team's brain-storming. This article seems to recommend a management graduate with skills in leadership learnt around a graduate table is the latest answer to the new trend of management. A manager still needs to have controls and administrative experienced skills rather than just a bookish leadership of conducting a brainstorming session to achieve a creative best approach (which is hardly a solution!). The administrative controls and experience of a real manager deals with the challenges and works together with the team's creative approach to obtain the best corporate requirement. Agreed that a win-win solution is when its not a "Do as I say" but a "let us do as we decide" to get a cohesive, cooperative movement, but that is not all that managers do!  Rather simplistic article I say! 
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Thanks for the article.


Just  a question to this model - do you not think that such a mode of work accomplishment will weaken the position of the manager? The team members (who are usually younger in experience) think that if they are the ones who are doing the planning/ solutioning as well, then what is a manager for? Why pay him a salary just for asking questions.

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The point is not to weaken the manager, but to transition from the manager role into a leadership role, which is a much stronger role, and one that many teams that simply have a manager are currently lacking.
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I have been using it for a while, the problem what I faced is not the team but the top level team, they all think this is not going to work out
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@jproinc - I totally agree that is why I focus my energies at the executive level of the organization. I find that they get it but behavior change is much more difficult than skill learning. "Information is not Transformation."  It takes a longer term vision, coaching and coaching and a little more coaching. Then for many, a bit flips and it clicks. They really get it and the whole organization turns around. 
It is a beautiful thing!
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@abuell - contrast your comment "In my opinion, a supportive leader is a much more difficult role." with @csudarsh asking why pay someone to just ask questions. 
I agree that it is a much more difficult role. 
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@mcorum - Totally! It can take a lot of time to move from traditional management style to a Supportive Leadership style. for both the teams and the managers.  Teams need to build trust and what Amy Edmonson calls Psychological Safety. Leaders need to install new operating system software in their heads. Everything runs differently with a different operating system.  
I find a three pillar system of: Training, Coaching and Peer Learning Groups make a recipe for potential lasting change.  Potential only, there are a myriad of other factors to consider.   
Exactly why I focus my consulting on middle and upper management. once that group flips the rest of the org has a chance.  
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@PhilImmStorageGuru thank you for taking the time to reply to the article. It is not just facilitation of a discussion that the leader must do. A couple of keys to success include setting the intent, the purpose, the why of the mission that the team is engaged in. They also must share the parameters within which the team has to operate.  
The example I like to use is of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had a vision (a dream) but also set very clear parameters within which to operate: Non-violent, civil disobedience.  If you went outside of those parameters, you were outside of his version of the movement. 
A Supportive Leader must communicate the boundaries, the cost controls, resources and tool requirements that are the boundaries. If for example the organization releases the team members to have the authority to purchase their own computers. Whatever they feel they need in order to get their job done they are free to order it, without approval. This must be balanced by ALSO sharing the budget for equipment, what everyone else in the organization has for equipment, and their respective needs.  Also making the individual's purchases transparent to their peers so they can make the same educated decision. When they have this information they have the capacity to make a good decision.  
Clearly I am not saying to let the team make every decision for the entire company. But many, many more decisions than most organizations allow today. 
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Software industries which follow Agile-Scrum do the same thing, the terminology used is "Servant Leadership" . This works only if the team is matured, else the risk of failure is more. The team should forward to take responsibility. 
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This is nothing but the Agile project execution. Never mentioning the term 'scrum master,' the article discusses all the thought process that defines the role!
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I think the two roles have many similarities, and a scrum master can be a supportive leader (though I’ve seen very few that were), but they are different. In general, a scrum master is more of a project manager than a supportive leader, and lacks that “we” that the supportive leader exhibits.
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@SrinivasaChamarty there are a lot of similarities you are right. the subtle difference is as @mcorum says more a part of the 'we'.
Additionally this leader can be anywhere in the organization: manager, director, VP, SVP, or CxO. The Supportive Leadership that they exhibit is a powerful tool to enable an organization to be nimble and adapt to changing markets. While the role of a Scrum Master can help a team, an executive Supportive Leader can help an organization.
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Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered. When people are empowered, they are free to see, to hear, to feel, and to comment. They are also free to move about, to act, to ask for what they want, to be creative, and to make choices.
In order for a leadership style to be effective, there has to be some balance among motivation, organization, and innovation.

Book: "Becoming a Technical Leader", January 1, 1986. Author: Gerald Weinberg

Note the date.
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