In the fast-changing environment of our modern world, building and maintaining a thriving organization is a huge challenge, no matter if the company is big or small. It’s always been necessary for managers and leaders to understand the business itself very well, but today there are new challenges too. Organizations need to be adaptable, innovative, and engaging for people. In order to be successful in the new environment, a leader not only needs to learn a lot, but unlearn a lot too. There are new and different behaviors, skills and tools needed to nurture successful teams and organizations. This is where Agile leadership can make a meaningful impact.
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- What is Agile leadership?
- Agile leadership principles
- Agile leadership styles
- Agile metrics for leadership
- Servant leadership
- Emotional intelligence in Agile leaders
- Lean Agile Leadership
- Agile Leadership Training
The term “Agile leadership” is made up of two key terms: agile and leadership.
Agile is an adjective, not a verb. It is not something you do, implement, or deploy: it is rather something you are. It is a property of a system, whether an individual, a team, or an entire organization. There’s a reason the word is exemplified by an athlete: being agile is about flexibility, and the ability to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances.
The Oxford dictionary defines leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”. From this perspective, leadership is not something connected to a formal role, and nor is it something people are either born with or not. All of us can be leaders and followers in different contexts. Leadership is simply an ability to build.
Agile leadership is the ability to be flexible, use different approaches, and adapt to the context and the people involved. Because of this dependence on context, expectations and relationships, there are no leadership behaviors that are inherently positive or negative in and of themselves. Rather, there are leadership behaviors which are more or less appropriate within the context.
Agile leadership is about the ability to make sense of the circumstances and adopt behaviors which are coherent with what the group of people you are leading in a specific context feels comfortable with. Incoherent behaviors are those that are not helpful within a specific situation and might be perceived negatively in the given cultural context. For this reason, Agile leadership is useful for any organization hoping to succeed in today’s climate, not only Agile organizations.
Coherent vs Incoherent Leadership
Like a sportsman needs to master many techniques to be really flexible, a true Agile leader has to master multiple leadership styles to be able to adopt the one that fits the specific context. That is quite a challenge, since we all feel more comfortable to adopt one or two specific leadership approaches and generally find others harder. If you do not practice the ones you are less comfortable with, the risk to propose an incoherent leadership is very high, which can be more harmful than you think.
In my coaching, I have observed the following pattern many times: People in a given organization are used to being told what to do. They have learned to be comfortable with it, because they are rewarded to follow directives. One day the manager comes and says, “Now we are Agile, so you are self-organized and empowered to do what you think is most appropriate”. People stare at each other wondering what this might mean, thinking “just tell us what to do and we will do it”.
This is an example of incoherent leadership. The resulting frustration and dissatisfaction are known as Motivational Debt. Even if a specific leadership behavior seems appropriate to a situation, it needs to fit the cultural expectations of the people involved. If it does not, it will very likely cause a negative emotional response and potentially increase motivational debt. In some cases, the impact can be so severe that people decide to leave. The “Great Resignation” all companies witnessed between 2020 and 2022 is a great example of what can happen in the extremes of incoherent leadership.
So, while it is true that Agile organizations are built upon autonomous and self-managed teams, this shift cannot be pushed onto people overnight. Individuals and teams need to be gently guided over time into becoming more autonomous and Agile, by adapting the leadership and the environment iteratively and incrementally, in the service of making people the best version of themselves.
In the last 15 years, I have had the chance to talk to a lot of leaders involved in efforts to create more agile organizations. Many of these leaders shared a sense of frustration for the many “don’ts” they were prescribed – and too few “do’s”.
These leaders were constantly hearing things like, “Don’t assign tasks to people!”;”Don’t tell the team how to do something!”; or “Don’t take decisions the team can take on their own!”.
The most common consequences of this frustration and uncertainty are two and both potentially harmful: the leader backs off and starts not to do anything or the leader keeps doing the same things as before exactly in the same way as before.
How do we address this then? How does effective leadership work in a 21st century organization?
Five Key Principles of Agile Leadership
Individuals and organizations are not machines, but living organisms who need to learn and adapt. This means that we cannot always have pre-programmed rules to follow. Pre-programmed rules and predefined processes work well in a stable environment where we are able to predict all possible scenarios and prepare in advance to handle them. But what about the scenarios or disruptive changes we cannot predict?
In such a context, it is more effective to learn and rely on principles instead of rules. First we need to incorporate those principles into our decision-making and leadership styles. Then, when new circumstances unfold, we can define appropriate practices, aligned with those principles, to make use of.
A good analogy for this is parenting. When kids are small, we can give them specific rules to follow, which work well in the safe space they live inside the family: “Don’t put your fingers into the plug! Sit well! First, finish your homework and then you can use your mobile phone!” However, if we want them to grow up and be equipped to face the unexpected events of adult life, we need to stop giving them rules and start teaching them principles (e.g. “Be honest”). Only then will they be able to apply themselves in different situations.
So what are useful Agile leadership principles to incorporate?
1. Manage the environment, not the people
Research and empirical evidence tell us that we can’t change people: we can hardly change the person we see in the mirror every morning. But we can change the environment and people’s experiences so that the behaviors and the results we expect come to life naturally.
Every organization has a vision and sets goals and metrics to monitor on the way to that company vision. Those goals are achieved (or not) through the results that every single person in the organization accomplishes. Some of them are exciting, like bringing an innovative product to the market, and some of them are just necessary, like filling in tax returns. But all results come from actions and behaviors. And going one step deeper, actions come from decisions, which in turn are informed by beliefs: we decide based on what we think is right or best in the moment.
Our brains are connecting machines, which create wired patterns through which we interpret the reality around us and decide what is right or wrong. These patterns are created through the experiences we have lived all our lives. Existing patterns cannot be broken: the power of one to one conversations is therefore overrated. But new patterns can be created through novel experiences.
Traditional leaders tend to focus on managing people’s actions. This approach addresses just the tip of the iceberg, and it only works well in a very stable environment. In such a state, the rate of change is so slow that we can afford to have only a few people (the managers) in control of decision making and the rest of the workforce simply executing.
When the rate of change is high, the reaction from hierarchical management is too slow and can create bottlenecks. Here, decision-making power must be distributed and given to those closer to the problem. To avoid the risk that everyone takes their own direction, this distributed decision-making power needs to be coherently funneled towards the company goals and vision.
Organizational culture is so much more than a value statement on your website: it’s the sum of the experiences and beliefs of the people involved. The organizational culture can be measured through its living manifestations, such as rituals, stories of success and failure, habits, and unwritten rules.
Today, an effective leader does not create superficial compliance to company values, but leverages approaches such as mentorship and coaching to create new experiences, which will then result in new stories, new rituals and new behaviors.
Agile leadership focuses at the bottom of the pyramid to manage the environment and create those experiences for people to build coherent beliefs, which will in turn determine coherent decisions.
2. Build autonomy and trust
Modern-day organizations benefit from decentralized decision making. To be more resilient and equipped to face unexpected circumstances, they must be built upon autonomous and self-managed teams.
But as we said above, the shift from a fully hierarchical chain of command to autonomy cannot be pushed onto people overnight. Individuals and teams need to be respectfully guided over time to become more autonomous and agile, by adapting to the leadership and the environment iteratively and incrementally.
An Agile leader carefully selects those leadership behaviors that can act as a bridge in the gentle transition towards higher levels of autonomy with minimum disruption and resistance.
This process of transition and discovery will be shaped by bringing diverse perspectives together, for instance by asking people to share stories of success and failure. Some questions you could ask include:
- Do they associate stories of success and failure with the same leadership approach or with different ones?
- What behaviors from the leader do they associate with success or failure?
- Is the group uncomfortable with higher autonomy at a given moment or do they favor it?
A transition towards a higher level of autonomy while building trust (instead of harming it) is based on adopting iteratively and incrementally more of the behaviors that are associated with the desired state and less of the ones that are not.
At the same time, it is necessary to build the teams’ skills to sustain high levels of autonomy, for instance the ability to navigate conflicts, collective decision making, and the ability to give each other constructive feedback.
3. Model the behaviors you want to see
As Agile leaders shape the environment to create the experiences which support the right culture and make higher levels of autonomy accepted and affordable by the team, they realize they are themselves part of that environment.
This means that they need to own and model the culture they want to see around in the organization, to avoid an incoherent clash between what they preach and the leadership they demonstrate. Such a clash can undermine people’s trust and willingness to take on more responsibility.
If Agile leaders are serious about improving their organization, they should be even more serious about improving themselves.
4. Lead based on the context
The ability to make sense of the circumstances in a given situation and adapt your approach to fit the context is a key characteristic of good leadership. As expressed by Dave Snowden in the Cynefin framework, different circumstances can be organized into different domains. The domains, in turn, are characterized by different approaches to decision making, acting and leading.
Situations in ordered domains show causality, meaning there is a clear relationship between cause and effect. This means that we can plan and act, based on the characteristics of the situation and the context in which it is happening. In some cases, the appropriate action is self-evident: it is sufficient and effective just to tell people what to do or establish guidelines and checklists to follow.Other cases require analysis. In these situations, expertise plays a very important role: the leader will ask experts to analyze the situation, and provide possible solutions. Establishing expert peer review can improve the quality of what is decided and executed.
In unordered domains, the lack of causality makes planning and the direct reuse of existing approaches very difficult, if not impossible. When the situation is complex, the relationship between cause and effect can only be discovered in retrospect and therefore actions might have unintended consequences. In those cases, expertise is not of much help, and it is necessary to run multiple parallel probes (some of which will fail). These allow the identification of repeating patterns and show us how to affect the system and address the problem. The leader’s ability to involve cognitively diverse people will affect the quality of the experiments and the decided actions.
In a chaotic situation (such as an emergency), the leader’s ability to act promptly is what will make a difference. Waiting and trying to analyze the situation is useless when volatility and uncertainty are very high.
Understanding the context and the situation allows leaders to act effectively in a given cultural context. For example, in a hierarchical organization people will expect the leader to appoint experts and make the final decision in a complicated situation, while in a more collaborative organization, the group will feel comfortable to appoint experts and options on how to move forward will be vetted and discussed by the group. Agile leaders are aware of the context and the situation and how to appropriately shift their behaviors and modulate the actual course of actions.
5. Incorporate agility into change
All changes, even with the best intentions, can create motivational debt by introducing gaps between expectation and reality. People are complex and there is only so much change each of us can handle at a time. However, many organizations try to take a “fail-safe” approach to change. An example of this could be buying a big model from a consulting agency, marketing the concept internally, and setting milestones. There’s so much money, ego and expectations attached to the change project that it will simply not be allowed to fail.
Agile leaders, on the other hand, know that effective change in a complex environment can only work with an evolutionary approach. Here, the focus is on leveraging the potential of the present and the natural predispositions that already exist in a team or an organization, instead of pushing towards an unrealistic ideal state.
Again, it is like parenting. If we want our kids to learn collaboration, we don’t describe what good collaboration looks like and create a plan towards it. Instead, we might encourage them to apply to a football or basketball team or to join a music band. Through these experiences, they will build collaboration muscles and learn what collaboration feels like.
In order to reduce the risk and side effects of change within organizations and deal with unpredictability, effective leaders know to instill change through diverse experiments with small continuous adaptations. This removes the burden and risk of maintaining different co-existing systems of work (i.e. the old way of working, and the new one) for long periods of time: small changes are easily understood, quickly piloted and rapidly integrated, minimizing the uncertainty, confusion and loss of effectiveness inherent in change.
Running different parallel experiments enables leaders to validate assumptions and hypotheses in a safe-to-fail environment. Through multiple safe-to-fail experiments they recognize repeating emergent patterns that can be replicated to catalyze change in other parts of the organization.
By asking volunteers to help define and run the experiments, they achieve wider acceptance of the change in the organization and increase transparency because everyone can see small things happen and facilitate work in that direction: people hate it when a big change is unexpectedly announced by management and they cannot relate to the rationale and the implications of the change.
Agile leadership is the ability to master multiple leadership styles to be able to adopt the one that fits the specific context, and work with the expectations of the team. We can define six different leadership styles (or behaviors) that can be developed and applied in different contexts and cultures:
Because of the dependence on context, expectations and relationships, there are no leadership behaviors that are positive or negative in themselves. Rather, leadership behaviors that are more or less helpful within a specific situation and might be perceived positively or negatively in a given cultural context.
Read more: Agile Leadership styles
A question on many Agile leaders’s minds is, “How can we know how well we are doing as leaders?” Most people would tell you that we need to measure the impact that our leadership has, the level of autonomy of our team, the culture, and the level of resilience of our organization. However these are all lagging indicators, which we can evaluate only in retrospect in the future: sometimes leadership is about planting seeds of a tree we will never enjoy the shade of.
However we could look at a few leading indicators to understand whether we are going in the right direction and get feedback. In this way we will be able to improve by leveraging on our strengths and acting on our improvement areas.
Leading indicators for Agile leadership
A first leading metric could be around how we are doing as servant leaders. If we are demonstrating good servant leadership, we are likely to be strengthening people’s skills and building leadership as a diffused organizational capability, so that everyone can be a potential leader. A few questions can help us self-reflect on the different servant leadership virtues and their impact on the people around us:
- Do people believe that I am willing to sacrifice my own self-interest for the good of the group?
- Do people believe that I want to hear their ideas and will value them?
- Do people believe that I understand what is happening in their lives and how it affects them?
- Do people come to me when chips are down or when something traumatic has happened in their lives?
- Do others believe that I have a strong sense of awareness for what is going on?
- Do others follow my requests because they want to as opposed to because they “have to”?
- Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the organization when I am around?
- Do others have confidence in my ability to anticipate the future and its consequences?
- Do others believe that I am preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the world?
- Do people believe that I am committed to helping them develop and grow?
- Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization that I lead?
Once you identify your biggest strength and your biggest improvement area, meet with a peer and:
- Share a story when you demonstrated the servant leadership virtue you believe represents your biggest strength
- Ask for a suggestion about what you could do tomorrow to become one inch better at practicing the virtue you feel you are most struggling with right now
Another useful leading indicator could be about our ability to master multiple leadership behaviors. If we have the agility to adopt the appropriate leadership style in each of the contexts we are dealing with, we can reduce the Motivational Debt and build autonomy and resilience in the organization. A leadership behavior assessment again could help us self-reflect and get the inputs necessary to strengthen our leadership muscles, around the style and the behaviors we feel less comfortable in adopting.
Our leadership behavior assessment is based on SenseMaker® technology developed by Dave Snowden and The Cynefin Co. Both the leader and their followers capture and interpret situations in which the leader demonstrated a certain behavior. Multiple perspectives on the same situation help the leader realize how well they master different leadership behaviors and how coherently they apply those to different situations and contexts.
Try agile42’s Leadership Assessment for free or level up with the full-featured assessment.
The future of work, especially after the pandemic, seems to be a place where individuals closer to the problem are best-placed to make decisions. Teams are self-managed, which means they decide what to work on, as well as when and how to best achieve the requested outcome.
Leaders that are effective in building such an environment create the conditions for the individuals and teams to perform at their best, and meet what people seem to expect from employers in 2022. This includes a focus on removing impediments, aligning stakeholders, building trusting relationships, coaching, providing feedback, developing people’s skills and building the capabilities of the organization. Ultimately, they cultivate the virtues of servant leadership.
What is servant leadership?
Robert K. Greenleaf first popularized the term “servant leadership” in The Servant as Leader, an essay published in 1970. It is a leadership philosophy and set of practices in which the leader puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. A Servant Leader should be asking themselves, “Do my actions help those I lead grow as persons? Do they, because of my actions, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become leaders?”
Dive deeper into Servant Leadership
The 11 virtues of servant leaders
These virtues are maybe even more essential now than they were when they were first published in 1970. In the current world, leaders simply can’t be effective without trust from people they are supposed to lead.
Practicing the virtues of servant leadership helps build good leadership in this fast-changing world. But what other qualities does an effective agile leader have?
Well, if you want to become the kind of leader who masters multiple leadership styles and is able to read the situation and apply a coherent approach to the context, you might want to work on your emotional intelligence.
Daniel Goleman was the first to popularize the idea of emotional intelligence and demonstrate evidence of its impact within organizations. He passionately argued for recognizing the relationship between someone’s emotional state and the actions driven by it, and how those actions in turn impact others and the organization (essentially the people they work with), whether positively or negatively.
Emotional intelligence consists of four fundamental skills:
- Social awareness
- Social skills
Read more: Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
The phrase “Lean Agile Leadership” is something of a buzzword at the moment, although if you unpack the concept there are a lot of useful principles behind it.
The term “Lean” was coined by James Womack, Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos in their book, The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production, in 1990.
Recommended reading: Lean Agile Leadership in more detail
Seven Lean principles
Later, in 2003, Mary and Tom Poppendieck published the book Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. In this book they identified seven fundamental principles to take the concept of lean thinking from production, and apply it to software and product development. I believe these principles can be applied to any creative work.
The seven Lean principles are:
- Eliminate waste
- Build quality in
- Amplify learning
- Defer commitment
- Deliver as fast as possible
- Respect people
- Optimize the whole
Three dimensions of Lean Agile Leadership
There’s another important thing we can learn from experiences of organizational transformation and Lean management in the manufacturing sector. In my coaching, I have pinpointed three key dimensions worth considering as a leader. For each of these dimensions, I will offer one or two coaching questions to facilitate the reader’s personal reflections.
- Visible problems do not exist: they have been solved already. To help leaders move forward, you can ask: “How many clearly visible problems are you still stuck with in your organization?”
- The most efficient way becomes the standard, and the standard must be improved every month. Here, we can ask, “How much are you still striving to find one-size-fits-all “best practices” to make you move quickly to the next rigid and comfortable status quo?”, and “What are your managers accountable for?”
- Measure organizational capacity for solving impediments to generate trust. Here, it can be helpful to ask, “How seriously is your organization taking the fixing of impediments for teams?” and “To what extent do you think you are living the values you’re preaching?”
In a post from 2011, consultant and writer Esther Derby explains how insufficient training and mentoring can be damaging for leaders. She says, “Most people in management roles receive little or no training on how to do the job. Many organizations promote people who excelled as individual contributors doing technical work into management roles […] The skills required for management are often vastly different. […] A lot of the management training out there is crap. Few organizations have robust and confidential mentorship programs.”
As we discussed in the chapters above, an effective way to become a better agile leader is to self-assess your servant leadership skills, understand how good you are at mastering multiple leadership styles, and grow your emotional intelligence index through journaling, self-reflection, and feedback.
However a solid education is extremely important, especially if you are starting the journey or want to deepen and practice your Agile leadership skills. In this context the industry standard and most widely recognized program in agile leadership is Certified Agile Leadership Essentials for Team and Organization Leaders, also known as CAL-E+T+O training. This class will help you discover how your natural, cultural dispositions might affect your teams, and learn how to create a safe-to-fail environment that fosters a culture of transparency, inspection, creativity, and adaptation.