When a project or organization adopts Agile, team members tend to know what that means for them from previous experiences or training. That’s not always the case for the people who lead those teams. Leaders at these organizations have to ask the question, “What does that mean for me as a leader?”

More goes into it than adding a buzzword to a title. In order to extract the most out of Agile transformation, leaders in these organizations need to look at their own capabilities and consider the best way to lead.

What leadership style should an Agile leader adopt?

There are leadership style shifts that can extract the most out of an Agile transformation.

Historically, leaders have led from power or rank, the elements of which will be familiar to most people who have worked in a company, including:

  • Command and control
  • Directing and telling
  • Policies and procedures
  • Top down decisions
  • Following a plan
  • Hierarchical organizations

There is a time and place for leadership by power, as David Snowden outlines in his Cynefin Framework. The framework helps identify what state your organization is in:

Chaos – cause and effect are not related

Complex – cause does influence effect but cannot be predicted

Complicated – cause and effect are connected and reasonably predictable

Simple – cause and effect are understood and easily predictable

In a state of true organizational chaos, an organization can benefit from some elements of power to bring stability. However, it is rare for organizations to be at this level of chaos. Additionally, the organization should be working quickly towards complex or complicated.

So, what if an organization is not in chaos?

In these cases, it is better to lead by influence. There’s a reason Ken Blanchard’s idea that “the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority,” resonates in today’s business world.

What are the characteristics of an Agile organization that make it possible for a leader to lead with influence?

Leaders can help lead their organizations by supporting traits of an Agile team if they keep Simon Sinek’s wise words in mind: “Leadership has nothing to do with rank,” and focus on the key characteristics of an Agile org that make Agile so powerful in the first place, including:

  • Employee empowered
  • Collaborative
  • Clear customer value vision
  • Not afraid to challenge the status quo
  • Funding cycles allow for shifts, allow for projects to be shut down or grow based on early results

How can a leader effectively lead an Agile team?

Agile leaders that adopt an influential leadership style through the following characteristics will have greater success:

Trust and transparency with the team

An example of an effective strategy using trust and transparency is to be open about the cost and value of the team. This clarity can help teams flounder less because they know what is at risk financially.

Self awareness

 A leader that enhances their own self-awareness is able to understand the strengths and weaknesses they bring to each interaction to make sure they are serving their team in the best way possible and not accidentally creating a hindrance.

Situational awareness

Leaders need to be able to see the forest and the trees. Developing the ability to recognize the abilities of each team member and the whole team is key.

Social awareness

Agile teams are made up of people. Effective leaders ensure they develop the ability to read a situation, empathize, and respond in the appropriate manner.

Active listening

Leaders that master the skill of active listening will build and work with stronger teams because they will not only hear, but process and learn from the information they take in while making their teammates feel seen and understood.

Openess to learn

Leaders have to understand that they too are constantly growing and must cultivate a mindset to continually learn with time, experience, and feedback. To avoid getting stuck in a narrow viewpoint, seek out feedback from the entire team.

Ability to give feedback

Being able to give feedback is as important as being willing to receive it because teams rely on having someone offer them information that they can process, reflect on, and learn from in order to grow from it.

Encourage teams to take calculated risks

Teams need an environment in which they can feel confident trying new things. Having a leader that empowers them to come up with creative solutions and doesn’t punish small failures is foundational to creating this environment.

Remember, being an effective Agile leader is a journey and it does not happen overnight for anyone. Embrace the journey.


About Alex Hollis

Mr. Hollis combines his skills and expertise from several years of technical and process development experience with business-level understanding to create value through the adoption and execution of Agile methodologies, clear product visions, and quality relationships with clients. He has internal and external product ownership experience, including priority negotiations with senior leadership. His strengths include team leadership, Agile coaching, and creating a vision that gets both technical and business stakeholder buy-in.​

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