Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 1 - An Overview

Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 1 - An Overview

This is the beginning of a 6-part series, taking you through the Montessori Approach and how the principles can make you a better Leader and your teams happier and high performing.

Last month, I presented a talk entitled "What Leaders can learn from the Montessori Method" during the Italian Agile Day. The talk was very well received, and I ended up referring to the ideas it contained quite often, so I decided to do a write-up that I can direct people to.

In this first post, I'll give you an overview of the principles and how they interplay; in future posts, I'll talk individually about each principle and give some practical advice and examples.

The Montessori ethos

First, for people who have never heard of the Montessori Method, it's a 100+-year-old pedagogical approach designed for young children. I'm genuinely fascinated that such an old method, meant to foster children's development is so current in how it relates to modern theories surrounding personal development and motivation. I did find the principles of the method very useful when thinking about fostering autonomy in the teams I'm helping and the people I work with. At the same time, I want to make sure the metaphor is not perceived as an attempt to treat adults like children. In the Montessori method, children are treated like small adults from the moment they are born, and it is certainly not in my nature to treat grown-ups like children.  

The first time I heard this simple phrase, "Help me to help myself", which Maria Montessori describes as the child's cry for independence, it clicked for me. I find the contradiction of "help me" and "to help myself" quite pertinent for the ongoing tension between the leader's need to solve a problem (help me) and the equally vital need to enable the person that is directly affected by the problem to help himself.  I certainly feel that tension every time I'm in a rush to leave the house while my daughter is learning to put her shoes on. I know I would already be out of the door if I did that myself, but I'd rob her of a chance to practice. Essentially this is what we do every time we step in to solve something for our team; we take away an opportunity for them to grow. As any parent knows, you can't always step back and let your child learn. But at the same time, you need to give them plenty of opportunities to grow.

The Principles

And now that we have a tool to remind ourselves to help your team help itself, what else has Montessori written that can help us to do so properly? I found the following principles quite helpful to set up an effective strategy and help navigate day-to-day decisions.

  • Independence is obviously at the centre of the Montessori method. When referring to a child, this means avoiding helping him with a task that he feels he can succeed in. Equally, at work, this means never stepping in when your teammate feels like he can do the job himself, and making sure to find an opportunity later to help him understand how you would have done it differently.
  • Prepared Environment is probably the most critical lever for fostering independence. When referring to a child, this means preparing the nursery or home to facilitate independence. At work, the environment is more abstract: it's made of incentives, social and organizational structures, culture, and processes.
  • Freedom within limits it's probably the principle that I'm more cautious to overuse because it triggers controlling behaviours. In the context of raising a child, it's about making sure that they don't hurt themselves or someone else. However, at work, it is about being transparent regarding the limits of your choices and defining the boundaries inside which you can use your agency.
  • Respect it's about having mutual respect. In both childhood and work contexts, this should be the easiest to implement, but in reality, respect is not only about being kind but also about respecting the fact that everyone learns and grows at his own peace and in his own way.
  • Intrinsic motivation is probably the aspect that has brought me close to the Montessori approach. Unlike other methods, there are no gold stars in the Montessori classroom to praise a child's progress.  Instead, it's the sense of accomplishment gained from completing an activity that powers the child's motivation. Likewise, a strong focus on extrinsic motivation reduces the intrinsic ones in a work environment.

As you can see, none of the principles above is particularly new. Still, the simplicity with which they counterbalance each other and take into consideration the fact that the world is imperfect makes them unique. While we can't always follow the correct principle, it is crucial to find the right compromise that allows you to move forward and grow your team.

Watch this space for the upcoming posts, where I'll examine the individual principles in-depth.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash