Compassion For Managers

Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Des Volkes Scrum, People's Scrum | One Comment
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It calls for compassionate leaders.
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This is a post in a series, with essays from the People’s Scrum book, German edition: Des Volkes Scrum.

Compassionate Leadership

Compassionate Leadership

Compassion For Managers

When I became a manager, I was torn between two strong feelings. On the one hand I loved the new challenge and was proud I had got the job. On the other hand I was afraid and doubted myself to be up to the task. I was gripped with fear.

The job title was dev lead and my colleagues had put a ladder (ladder and leader translate into the same German word: Leiter) next to my desk, as a welcoming present. As such, a nice joke. It cut back my pride and increased my doubts.

Later I became managing director. They paid well, so I didn’t refuse. I generally had a hard time saying no, which rarely helped. I became part of a political game and I wasn’t aware of the rules. There was just one thing I thought I knew: “Nobody is to notice that you can’t do this. Don’t show weakness. Don’t ask for anyone’s advice. You’re the boss now.”

Since then, I’ve worked with many managers. None of them was one hundred percent confident in their jobs. Again and again, it is a challenge to lead people. And many of us have been poorly prepared for it, or not at all.

The more we understand complexity, the clearer we see that we can’t predict the future. Business models become short-lived. The context is ever changing. We need people and organisations who discover together what will work tomorrow. Managers are paid very well, because they are supposed to know the right way.  Today, you might ask yourself, “if my boss doesn’t know which way will be right tomorrow any better than I do, why does my boss earn so much more than I do?” The prevalent understanding of hierarchy is making less and less sense, if you look at it this way. That scares managers.

In typical hierarchical enterprises you climb the ladder (sic!) if you don’t show weakness. Emotions are not valued, so they are hidden. Bosses appear cold-hearted. I rarely (if ever) meet managers who actually are cold-hearted. They wear masks which were crafted by the system. They use those to hide their feelings. That hurts managers.

Furthermore, we promote people away from their talents and their passion: those get ahead who are good at what they have been doing before. That rarely happens to be leadership or management. Just now they’ve been a first-class engineer, developer, or teacher. Suddenly, they are expected to be a great leader or manager. From one moment to the next, totally different skills are required of you. That unsettles managers.

It is easy to rant about the boss. It is not helpful. Every human being needs compassion. People who are afraid need more compassion.  Fear blocks us. Fear drags us down. Fear impedes understanding and insight.

For those organisations who want to transform, we want Scrum to unfold its releasing effect. To make that happen, we need to have and show compassion for those who’ve maintained what has made us successful.

People's Scrum

People’s Scrum

What does being compassionate mean, specifically? First and foremost, to accept, observe and share our feelings with each other. That melts down blocks and opens us for new possibilities. It presents us with new available choices. We feel less alone.

How can we behave in a helpful way with a manager, whom I want to let go of their current style of leadership? Appreciation works best, in my experience. Appreciation for what has made us successful in the past and doesn’t help us any further now. Without appreciation, we can’t let go of something that is important to us. We have been engaged, we have invested, we have believed. Maybe we even fought against resistance and hurt people on the way. Yet it worked. We were successful! To close that chapter and move on, we need appreciation.

When things begin to change, when the first brave steps are made, appreciation helps again. We demonstrate that we are noticing the manager changing. We step out of the choir of those who always chant, “they will never change”. We encourage, we give power to go on.

Furthermore, it helps people to share stories. Let’s tell each other about situations in which we felt overchallenged and pretended we had everything under control. Sharing vulnerability fosters true connection.  Trust is created, which is needed for an open dialogue. In dialogue we can learn from each other.

In the past, I frequently entered new client situations with the attitude, “They are doing it wrong. They need my help. I know how this works.” Hey, I was agile. I knew waterfall was no solution. I knew that people can’t develop their potential when they are oppressed. Yet, I was increasing the oppression. I was adding to the sensation of powerlessness and frustration. I didn’t realise that at the time.

Today I regard and respect those who have made a system successful enough to be able to afford external help. Those who are aware enough, while they are failing or afraid to fail, to realise they won’t make it on their own. Who trust us to trust them to improve. Those are all people in an enterprise. And those, who are at the top, mostly quite alone.

I have compassion for managers..


We were translating Tobias Mayer’s The People’s Scrum into German in 2014, when I published this post: We’re done with the translation, I sent the copy-edited manuscript to the publisher today. Tobias asked us to create a spirited rather than literal translation, adding some of our own material to the book. I published one of those new essays a few weeks ago. There is one more essay I added, which is so dear to my heart that I translated it into English for you.

1 Comment

  1. Peter
    September 19, 2014

    Just great, matching my own experience closely. Beside more and more manager try to transform most of them fail badly as soon as ‘issues’ arise
    IMHO this is caused by
    – missing (upperlevel / peer) support to do things really differently mid-/long-term.
    – fear to violate one of the millions rules/guidelines in enterprises
    and at the end of the day cause it’s really hard to fight everyday when they feel that it isn’t enough to preserve agile islands which arrives and pass by …


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