Agile leadership

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Agile leadership is the craft of creating the right context for self-organisation. An environment where agile teams collaborate, learn from each other, get quick feedback from users and are focused on quality and continuous learning. He or she doesn’t micro-manage the people nor creates total freedom. Balancing between anarchy and strict structure is crucial in today’s markets. Developing and maintaining this right environment is often hard work. With focus on culture, ownership, mindset, feedback and long term goals.

The leader has to handle well in a wide range of circumstances, especially new, changing and ambiguous situations. It is associated with mode four leaders (Modes of Leadership) who have the ability (and agility) to operate in any mode (system of thinking) and most importantly see from the perspectives of the other modes. It is this ability to think in a number of different ways that gives such leaders their agility. This is also introduced within the concepts of Agile Business Management[1] as the primary management model for adaptive and agile organisations.


There are many perspectives to the origins of Agile Leadership, some which align with the advent of the Agile manifesto [2]With the rise of Agile software development also a new leadership style arose. When markets are becoming more and more VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) organizations have to be able to respond quickly and handle all the uncertainties. In these markets, traditional management is often seen as too slow. Agile promotes giving the teams the mandate and freedom to make their own decisions. Making teams able to respond quickly to new market changes and technological opportunities. This transformed the style of leadership, towards creating the right context and environment for self-managing teams. See Workers' self-management.

The framework for business agility [3] has also created a set of Agile Leadership principles. These principles [4] have been adopted by a number of universities across the globe. These principles also form the basis of the agile business consortiums views on Agile culture.[5]

This leadership style fits well in today's culture of giving autonomy to employees to do their work and not tell people what to do. Instead, create clarity on the objectives or desired outcome and let people and team discover the best ways to achieve. Next it also fits with the importance of customer-focus or customer-centricity. With the rise of [mobile phones] and [internet] more and more organizations are becoming digital (internet culture). Software is eating the world [6] Where there primary contact with customers isn't face-to-face but through a digital device. These organizations have to respond quickly to customer feedback and make sure that their customer-satisfaction is high. By giving teams access to NPS (Net Promoter) and CES (Customer success), they can quickly respond and adapt.

Attributes according to Iacocca[edit]

The attributes associated with Agile Leadership are (from Iacocca & Witney[7] and Wilkinson[8]):

  1. Ambiguity tolerance
  2. Curiosity
  3. Creativity
  4. Courage
  5. Conviction
  6. Emotional Resilience
  7. Critical Thinking
  8. Vision
  9. Flexibility

Focus of the agile leader[edit]

The essence of agile leadership is creating the right environment for self-managing teams [9]

  1. Co-create the goals – instead of giving instructions, rather make sure that the goals are clear. So teams know what to achieve, and if their actions are bringing them any closer to their goal.
  2. Facilitate Ownership – create an environment in which agile teams can grow and thrive. Teams can’t be forced to take Ownership, leaders can only create those circumstances in which teams take ownership. This is a balancing between stepping in and letting go. Finding the sweetspot where teams have the right amount of freedom aligned with their level of maturity.
  3. Learn faster – being fit and ready for the future is not about being the best, it's about learning faster. Self-managing teams need to get fast feedback on their actions and their decisions. Preferably from users and customers. It's the leaders role to promote learning from experiments and failures.
  4. Design the culture – The agile leader has to envision, design and improve the culture of the organisation.

Agile Business Management[edit]

Within Agile Business Management, the primary job of an Agile Leader is to encourage and empower cross-functional teams. This demands that team members are granted sufficient personal responsibility, accountability and authority to deliver the customers’ requirements. An Agile Leader can support this in three ways:

  1. Provide an environment where it is safe to fail.
  2. Provide all the information necessary to make appropriate decisions.
  3. Uphold decisions made by the staff.

There are two primary anti-patterns for an Agile Leader; micromanagement and absenteeism. If a process is under control, and within allowed tolerances, staff should have the authority to deliver, without management intervention. This assumes a robust monitoring and reporting process, to identify when management intervention becomes required. This brings us to the other extreme, an absentee manager. A manager is ‘absentee’, even if they are physically in the office, if they do not monitor or engage with their staff to ensure delivery. Without a manager to eliminate impediments, it becomes nearly impossible to meet any schedules or budgets.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leybourn, E. (2013). Directing the Agile Organisation: A Lean Approach to Business Management. London: IT Governance Publishing: 38–45.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Marc Andreessen - Software is eating the world
  7. ^ Iacocca, L. & Witney, C. (2007) Where have all the leaders gone? Scribner Book Company
  8. ^ Wilkinson.D.J.(2006) The Ambiguity Advantage: what great leaders are great at. London: Palgrave Macmillain.
  9. ^ Koning, P. (2019). Agile Leadership Toolkit: Learning to thrive with self-managing teams.
  10. ^ Leybourn, E. (2013). Directing the Agile Organisation: A Lean Approach to Business Management. London: IT Governance Publishing: 41–42.

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