The Magnetic "B-Field" of Leadership

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Leadership" is vital for organizations to operate effectively. And yes, folks commonly agree that leadership is in short supply or sadly missing in action. Much of what we hear about leadership's definitions, descriptions, and perceptions are gobbledygook at best, consultants' shills' hype at worst. Yet, leadership, to many people, reflects Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous remark about pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Leadership is that special magic I've seen that enables organizations, and especially those that develop software, to achieve high velocity and stay in their stride. And I've learned that leadership is like the wind -- it's invisible, but its effects are evident. Or like love -- it eludes definition, but is profound in shaping attention and sense of well-being. The closest analogy I've encountered in terms of "I know it is when I see it" regarding leadership is analogous to the B-Field of magnetism we learned in freshman physics. As a reminder, it's a vector field that exerts a force on electrical charges and magnetic dipoles.

The B-Field exerts an evident force; children learn about magnetism by seeing how iron filings become aligned and trace the "lines of force" on a sheet placed over a magnet. When leadership is effective it acts the same as that aligning force. When it's inept, then misguided and spasmodic management becomes the norm.

Leadership is an evident pattern. When this "B-Field" is present, people align their communication and activities; when absent, entropy rises and waste increases. Communication remains the essence: long term or short term? Innovation or speed-to-market? Whatever it is, if it's clear, people rally. Speech and actions become aligned towards such ends. Morale is often positive.

Likewise, when developers have a shared conception of their objective and the purpose of their activity, they tend to pursue it straight as an arrow. In contrast, when priorities shift, ambiguity reins, or false urgency becomes commonplace, the velocity of software development plummets. Things become chaotic; inefficiency becomes widespread. Morale often sucks. Misguided micro-management becomes the order of the day.

Nothing escapes the relentless decay of entropy. Organizations are fragile and feeble to begin with. Leadership is hard: it takes forethought, clear communication, and backbone. But leadership can be simple: it takes commitment, discipline, and empathy. The nature of leadership, especially for software development is -- as Jim Barksdale continually exhorted -- keep the main thing the main thing. It especially helps when people have some clue as to what the main thing is supposed to be. When leadership is evident, the main thing is likewise evident; when leadership is absent, there's no "main thing" (actually there are several, meaning there isn't one).

A strong B-Field, as evidenced from speaking about lean principles and acting in accord with agile practices, can increase velocity to the capacity of the project team. In a straight-forward manner, retrospectives, iterations, and prioritized backlogs, draw focus and choreograph activity in a way that naturally leads to improved velocity. To achieve this, leadership is necessary, and the B-Field may well stand for the "backbone" necessary to require prioritized backlogs, broad test coverage, real penalties for breaking the build, coding discipline (e.g., YAGNI, DRY, etc.), and the like.

There remains a clear pattern: In organizations without leadership, dead starts, re-starts, broken builds, side projects, and disconnected work all become commonplace. In organizations with evident leadership, people's activities align, and velocity increases to its capacity. Great code comes from happy developers. Order arises without anyone giving orders.