Agile leadership

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The ability of a leader to be able to lead well in a wide range of circumstances especially new, changing and ambiguous situations.


Agile Leadership 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.


The attributes associated with Agile Leadership are (from Iacocca & Witney[2] and Wilkinson[3]):

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

12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership[edit]

It’s one of the big myths of the Agile world - Agile does not need Management! Of course, the real answer is not so black and white. As a stereotypical consultant would say, “it depends” on how you define that act of management. It is true that the old ways of command and control, of micro-management, are no longer needed, but the mindset and actions of great Leadership are vital to the success of any Agile endeavour or transformation.

These 9 Attributes above lead nicely into the 12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership[4].

The first six concentrate on developing the right mindset, this new way of thinking, and the last six look at the new behaviours or actions, the new way of working, that this thinking and mindset will inspire.

  1. Shared Vision and Passion Before you start any journey you need to know where you are going. This dimension allows the leadership to have a clear idea of what their organisation will look like in the near future, how they expect it to work using Agile / Lean and how they will interact with the new organisation structure
  2. Not Taylorism, Why Agile Back in the early 1900s Taylor, through scientific observation, tried to find best practice. Sadly, people approach agile transformations in the same way, applying an off the shelf blanket framework, scaled approach or delivery model that they think is best. Ask “why” first and develop the perfect agile fit for you.
  3. Market and Customer Value A strong blend of Design Thinking and Voice of the Customer allows you to empathise with customer experiences, both good and bad. This empathy will guide you as you correctly define, ideate and experiment in iterations, with strong feedback, to delivery real value to your customers.
  4. Understand where we are VUCA / Cynefin Also for any journey you need to know where you are starting from and the surroundings through which you will travel. Cynefin[5] will allow us to determine the complexity of our emerging environment, and through VUCA[6], assess the volatility and uncertainty of our market and customer needs
  5. Continuous Transformation via Improvement The goal is not to become agile, the goal is to understand how to be more agile. Agility is a result of a mindset; not a process. An enterprise will never finish “becoming agile” because it will always find ways to improve its operations.[7]
  6. Learning as an Attitude, Learn from Failures The best leaders are those that are always ready and willing to learn, and who take every opportunity to acquire knowledge and experiences which will help them to grow. There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.
  7. Servant Leadership Traditional leadership generally involves the building-up and use of power by one at the “top of the pyramid”. Servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and focuses primarily on the growth and develop of people to perform as highly as possible.
  8. Create Environment, Create Culture The most important thing agile leaders do is to create and nurture a working environment and culture that supports experimentation, collaboration, continuous improvement and learning, and which helps the organisation build trust to overcome Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team.
  9. Skills, Tools and Techniques Develop a personal, high level understanding of the basics in Lean, Agile, Scrum, XP, etc., a good hands-on experience of specific tooling for collaboration, KPIs, and delivery / maturity reporting, and leadership techniques such as Kaizen, Obeyas and Gemba walks[8].
  10. Agile Governance For any organisation good governance is a must for robust product delivery, but agile requires and provides a different approach. Gone are the original quality gates and prescribed documentation, replaced by collaboration, refined backlogs and iterative events. As an Agile Leader you need to refresh your understanding of today’s governance models and frameworks. They have all come to the realisation that Agile is not going away and have put together some quite good updates. This includes ISO, Prince2, CMMI and, since the end of February 2019, ITIL with the release of version 4.
  11. Control Direction, Inspire People, Provide Autonomy By creating boundaries within which people can work together towards a common goal, leaders and influence, rather than control, an outcome, while allowing creativity, collaboration and innovation to naturally happen.
  12. Organisational Barbell for Stability and Innovation Apply Taleb’s “barbell strategy[9]” in an enterprise context, where the majority of the organisation’s effort is targeted towards proven, low risk run activities, while a significant but smaller effort is allocated to risky, innovative activities.

Finally, I would like to consider this well-known saying; “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together"

As a single Agile Leader, you can make a huge difference in the lives of your team members, but unless these changes are supported by the whole organisation, these changes will not last.

If we are to achieve the dream of deep and sustainable organisational agility, we need to alter our assumptions and understanding of what Leadership is.

As an Organisational Leadership Team, together you need to be united in your agreed vision, direction and approach, you need to understand that leadership is no longer a top-down, role-based authority, and you need to comprehend and support ‘True Leadership’ as an organisation-wide phenomenon that can exist at any level or in the heart and mind of any individual.

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.

The most important thing an Agile Leader can do is to create and nurture a working environment and culture that is emotionally safe and supports experimentation, collaboration, continuous improvement and learning. For me this is what the 5th Principle of the Agile Manifesto is all about, building the right environment and giving as much support as possible so that your team and organisation can do more than just grow, they can thrive.

5th Principle - Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.[10]

Of course, this will not be a quick or easy experience. It may take years, but it is vital to bring about not only a lasting transformation, but also real organisational achievement. The reason it takes so long, it can only be achieved by building a strong foundation of Trust, a foundation that will help the organisation overcome Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team[11].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leybourn, E. (2013). Directing the Agile Organisation: A Lean Approach to Business Management. London: IT Governance Publishing: 38–45.
  2. ^ Iacocca, L. & Witney, C. (2007) Where have all the leaders gone? Scribner Book Company
  3. ^ Wilkinson.D.J.(2006) The Ambiguity Advantage: what great leaders are great at. London: Palgrave Macmillain.
  4. ^ Kessel-Fell, Jonathan (April 6, 2019). "12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership". LinkedIn.
  5. ^ Snowden, David (November 2007). "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review.
  6. ^ Inam, Henna. "To Lead In A VUCA World, Practice Leadership Agility". Forbes.
  7. ^ Mike Cohn - keynote address at the Agile2010 Conference held in Orlando, Florida.
  8. ^ "Gemba Walk: Where the Real Work Happens".
  9. ^ Cuofano, Gennaro. "What Is a Barbell Strategy? Nassim Nicholas Taleb Investment Strategy Explained".
  10. ^ "Agile Manifesto Principles".
  11. ^ ZARTLER, JESSICA (Sep 7, 2017). "Lencioni's 5 Dysfunctions of a Team".

External links[edit]