Agile Leadership — A Brief Overview of Concepts and Ideas

Agile Transition — Berlin Product People GmbH

TL; DR: Agile Leadership

I recently started aggregating my notes, links, and references related to agile leadership to understand better what it — in the context of an agile transition — may look like. In the end, becoming agile is not the goal of a transition; surviving as an organization is. Hence I appreciate whatever appeals to business leaders and their motivation to delve into agile ideas, frameworks, or practices.

Let’s examine some favorite ideas and concepts around agile leadership. (Please bear with me that the following text is rather bullet-point heavy to concentrate its information.)

Agile Leadership – Berlin Product People GmbH

Agile Leadership: Success Criteria for Organizational Change

In my experience, there are at least five criteria for successful agile transformations. Lasting organizational change happens:

  1. When there are leadership and guidance, not command & control.
  2. When there is alignment across the organization instead of the pursuit of local optimization efforts or personal agendas.
  3. When the collaboration of all participants beyond hierarchies is the norm, not an exception.
  4. When we acknowledge that management principles of the 19th century are unsuited to solve complex problems of the 21st century.
  5. When managers become servant leaders.

The following paragraphs focus on the main concepts related to agile leadership: from servant leadership to the agile mindset to creating a learning organization. The lists are not supposed to be comprehensive but provide the interested reader with a starting point for further research.

Servant Leadership

“A Servant Leader shares power puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.”

Source: Wikipedia on Servant Leadership.

Servant leadership is a suitable approach to dealing with complexity. Complexity — the unknown unknowns — determines decision-making processes and is characterized by:

  • More unpredictability than predictability.
  • Emergent answers.
  • Many competing ideas.
  • Cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For a much more elaborate approach to complexity, see the Cynefin framework by Dave Snowden.

Servant leadership is not a new concept:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” (Lao Tzu, 4th century BC.)

Servant leadership is characterized by:

  • Service to others.
  • Promotion of community.
  • Creation of a shared vision.
  • A holistic approach to work.
  • A shared decision-making process.

Servant leadership thus seems suited to overcome the industrial paradigm. Source: Wikipedia.

Intent-based Leadership

The principles of intent-based leadership according to David Marquet are as follows:

  • Create leaders, not followers.
  • Resist the urge to resolve problems of your people.
  • Take deliberate action.
  • Learn everywhere at any time.
  • Specify goals, not methods.
  • Don’t empower, emancipate.

Source: 10 Insights on Intent-Based Leadership — David Marquet.

Reading tip: Turn the Ship Around.

Agile Mindset

The ‘agile mindset’ discussion seems to be centered around five areas: complexity and planning, delivering value, self-organization, fostering collaboration, and cross-functionality of teams:

Mindset, Complexity, and Planning

  • The definition of mindset: “The established set of attitudes held by someone.”
  • The complexity challenge:
    • The scientific management methodology of Frederick Taylor does not apply to “creative work.”
    • Problem-solving in a complex environment cannot be achieved with “more” planning.
    • The future in the complex or chaotic domain cannot be predicted.
    • Hence different approaches need to be employed when dealing with creative solutions in unchartered territory, for example, Empiricism or Lean.

Focus on Delivering Value

  • Continuous value delivery to customers; outcome over output. (Manifesto of Agile Software Development: “Working software is the primary measure of progress.”)
  • Continuous learning & applying empiricism:
    • Deming: PDCA cycle.
    • Empiricism: Transparency, inspection, adaptation.
    • Iterative, incremental.
    • Accepting that failure is more than an option but inevitable.
    • Willingness to adapt to change.


Fostering collaboration

  • Creating psychological safety and equal speaking opportunity.
  • Respect for individuals.
  • Inclusion and diversity.
  • Core Protocols: Opt-in, opt-out, law of 2 feet — creative work requires voluntary participation.
  • Prime directive: stop protecting the organization by assuming people come to the office to “rip you off.”
  • Give people a voice, provide an opportunity to be heard.

Further reading: How to build the perfect team. [NYTimes.]

Cross-functional Teams

  • End-to-end (value) delivery capability of teams.
  • The autonomous pursuit of customer value balanced with accountability.
  • Abandoning functional silos in favor of focusing on delivering value.
  • Avoidance of local optimization.
  • A cornerstone on the path to achieving business agility.

More Articles on Agile Leadership

Creating a Learning Organization

Peter Senge is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coined the term ‘lerning organization’ in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline:’

These are the characteristics of a learning organization according to Peter Senge:

  • System thinking: assessing businesses as a system of bounded objects.
  • Personal mastery: the commitment of an individual to the process of learning.
  • Mental models: assumptions and generalizations held by individuals and organizations.
  • Shared vision: Creating a collective identity to provide focus and energy for learning.
  • Team learning: The accumulation of individual learning.

Harvard Business School professor David A. Garvin defines a learning organization as follows:

  • “A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”
  • New ideas, insights or moments of creativity are necessary to trigger organizational change. They are not sufficient, though to create a learning organization. The changes to the way work is accomplished need to follow suit.
  • Sources: Building a Learning Organization, and Wikipedia.
  • Traditional vs. Agile Leadership Behavior — A Cheat Sheet

    We can aggregate and condense the before mentioned concepts and principles into a comparison of the traditional management style and agile leadership:

    Traditional ManagementAgile Leadership
    Predictive, long-term planningProvision of vision, strategy, and direction
    Control of work, task assignmentFostering self-organization
    Maximize utilization and capacitySupporting teams by removing what is impeding them
    The go-to problem fixer for subordinatesLet those closest to the problem figure out a solution
    Motivating others by extrinsic incentives (bonuses, titles, etc.)Motivating others by enabling autonomy, mastery, and purpose
    Information flows up the hierarchy (reports, meetings).Management moves to where the information is, for example, by participation in Sprint Reviews.

    Agile Leadership — Conclusion

    I hope you managed to get the most out of this provisional list of quotes, video, articles, concepts, notions, and ideas on agile leadership. If you like to deepen your understanding, offers an engaging training class on agile leadership, helping leaders understand their role in enabling agile transformation.

    If you like to suggest links to add, please post them in the comments’ section.

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    Tags: agile leadership, leadership, servant leadership