The 7 Essential Attributes of Agile Leadership

Companies who want agility need to create agile leaders first


Leon Purton

2 years ago | 14 min read

Agile terminology is becoming part of the lexicon in many levels of organizations nowadays. There has been an introduction of terms like minimum viable products, iterations and retrospectives into business meetings.

Teams are being re-organized to be multi-disciplinary, rather than segregated by work function. Positions like Scrum Masters and Product Owners now exist. But it is not the functional changes that matter, it is the language that changes how people think and behaves that is truly important.

This is the principle behind agile in everything, and why agility is essential for businesses to remain viable in an uncertain world. Key to achieving this is the realisation that to be successful, you need agile leadership in place.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash
Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Agile — the beginning

Agile was indeed started as a way of changing the way we think about software delivery. Rather than planning and documenting all the methods and structures used to produce the entire system, small parts of the capability are released and documented incrementally.

It was founded on a manifesto agreed in Utah in 2001, underpinned by frustration that there should be a focus on more working software and less documentation. The 17 who met at the ski lodge in Utah first wrote the following manifesto statement, then set about defining the twelve popularised principles;

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

You’ll note, there is no mention of Kanban or Scrum Masters. There is no mention of retrospectives and sprint planning. These terms all become part of the Agile Methods of execution spawned from these series of statements. They began with a philosophy — at its core, agile is an attitude or way of thinking, not a system or method.

Organisations that adopted this mindset for software development began to thrive. The systems of practice, the structure that supported the philosophy, with created rituals and tempos and methods of management and reporting were born from these software teams finding the ways to meet the original philosophy.

Now you have execution methods like Extreme Programming, Scrum and Kanban, which have different rituals and processes but at their heart, they all focus on meeting the four statements above. There are people that state one is better than the other, and there are others that mix them to optimise for their business.

It doesn’t matter, because it is not about “Agile”, it is about agility in execution. How you get there is up to you.

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

Extension beyond software

You might be thinking “I don’t work in software development, I don’t need to think about Agile”. To help you understand, I want to take you through some other sectors that identify the shifts are happening more widely.

First, banking

In 2015, the ING bank headquarters in the Netherlands underwent a top to bottom agile transformation. They were inspired by Google, Netflix and Spotify’s increase in efficiency and ability to react to changing conditions.

To complete their transformation, they let 3500 people know they were without a job, and competitively re-hired them into 2500 positions structured in 350 nine-person teams with some enabling support.

They teamed marketing specialist, commercial specialists, UX designers, analysts and product line specialists. They invested in cutting edge software processes like DevOps and continuous delivery and released updates and fixes every two weeks, rather than every three months.

They saw improvement in time to market, an increase in productivity, and importantly, a boost to their employee engagement. When asked about whether traditional companies can embrace an agile transformation, ING CIO Peter Jacobs said;

I believe that any way of working is independent of what technology you apply. I see no reason why an agile way of working would be affected by the age of your technology or the size of your organization. Google and ING show that this has nothing to do with size, or even the state of your technology. Leadership and determination are the keys to making it happen.

Next, technology

An organisation created in 1886, now with 390,000 employees spanning 60 countries embarked upon an agile transformation in 2016. Bosch, one of the leading suppliers of automotive parts and home and garden tools, realised that business agility was going to be essential to meet the reactiveness of the market.

They began by identifying the parts of their organisation that focussed on innovation and created agile teams. The rest of the company would remain in their traditional structures. They realised that with a foot in either camp, they weren’t delivering the required results.

So they went all in. They transitioned the company, including the leadership team — but made a crucial, if predictable mistake. They wrote a long project plan, mapped out a timeline and phased the transition. They used traditional project management structures, a waterfall method, to introduce agile.

The result was an ineffective transition, with nothing changing. So next, they adopted a Scrum@Scale approach. The CEO and the Board became an agile team with a product owner and scrum master and embraced visible planning walls.

Leadership throughout the organisation took on the role of creating prioritised backlogs for the company and worked within continuous planning and guided mini-funding cycles. They began to examine the operation of the business through a different lens; they saw obstacles from different angles and realised that they were accumulating organisational debt.

Once it was identified, they could be addressed.

For Bosch agility is crucial, it allows us to adjust to the increasing speed of the world around us. Agility allows us to remain in a position as an innovation leader. — Volkmar Denner, CEO of Bosch, May 2017

Being more agile does not just assist software development teams; there is value in it for organisations large and small. However, there is a key point that warrants re-enforcement. It is not the ‘Agile methods’ it is the ‘agile mindset’ that creates room for change and improvement.

Being agile refers to a set of attributes and behaviours; doing Agile refers to the methods. How you choose to execute is dependent on what outcomes and systems you prefer. It is the mindset that changes organisations the methods just support it.

The seven attributes of agile leadership

Agile leadership requires a shift from the traditional thought patterns it requires the embodiment of the agile manifesto principles within the leadership team. While the original manifesto has been written to focus on software development, others have taken the structure and revised it to be more broadly applicable.

You can also provide an agile manifesto for leadership within organisations. A template for such might look like this:

  • Individuals and interactions, not processes and tools; set metrics for success, but leave the execution to the teams. Create a dynamic that encourages interactive and not insular problem-solving.
  • Customer engagement, not rigid contracts; feedback from diverse customers is essential for improvement, and there are always improvement opportunities.
  • Working solutions, not excessive documentation; Find comfort in good enough, and create room teams to focus on identifying and removing impediments. Offer support to devolving complex problems, and allow the team to iterate and deliver solutions.
  • Flexibility, not concrete plans; Look for opportunities to take risk and test hypotheses safely. Continuously review so that you can re-prioritise and stop activities that are not yielding benefits in the required time frames.

Each of these offers challenges to contemporary thinking for leadership, as traditional structures of planning, managing, and reporting do not align with these principles.

Thinking and acting with an agile mindset unlocks the potential of the people around you. Here are the seven attributes of an agile leader.

1. Humility

You want your team to embrace opportunities to learn, they need to acknowledge that they don’t already know. The same goes for leaders. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says;

It’s time to go from know-it-alls to learn-it-alls

Humility is the anchor to the ego. Leaders have risen within organisations by being good, in many situations, they project the confidence the team truly needs to achieve the assigned goals. This confidence comes from their self-identity, and sometimes that self-identity is amplified by ego.

As humans, we need to remember “humility is not thinking less of yourself it is thinking of yourself less”. The ego makes you think of yourself, and humility allows you to think of others.

There is nothing more powerful for leaders than saying ‘I don’t know, wouldn’t it be great to find out’. Humility, coupled with this type of growth mindset, is an essential attribute. Humility accelerates learning.

2. They provide outcomes and not actions

There are times for telling your staff what they need to do, but they are few. A far better attribute to have as an agile leader is to focus on providing outcomes you require and let the teams work out how to make it happen for themselves.

This is one of the fundamental shifts in agile. The Product Owner describes the outcomes they want as stories, for example, “I want to increase our sales revenue in Asia so that we can invest in research for our new product line”.

This type of approach is inherently part of the Agile process, but it is an essential part of the transition for an agile leader. Even better, these are co-created with the team.

The best agile leaders focus on outcomes over actions. The team then owns the process and the feeling of accomplishment with achieving it.

Bart Schlatmann former CIO at ING described the following changes for leaders;

We gave up traditional hierarchy, formal meetings, overengineering, detailed planning, and excessive “input steering” in exchange for empowered teams, informal networks, and “output steering.”

3. Flexibility

Leaders who commit to outcomes over actions, defining the required endstate without controlling the methods, will have to be flexible in the approach the teams choose to take.

Rigidity goes against the principles of small iterative experimentation. But this can be a challenge. Particularly in the early adoption phases. When the self-managing teams are first established, there are opportunities for mistakes and some chaos. Agile leaders need to acknowledge this and be flexible and adaptable to the changing requirements.

If the desire is to react quickly to changing situations and opportunities, being dogmatic about the process as what worked or you yesterday will not necessarily apply today. The shorter horizon execution strategies of an agile leader allow for adjusting the plan as you go along.

4. They coach instead of command

As a leader, you look to hire clever people. People that you believe can do the job required. But sometimes, those people you hired, cannot see what needs to be done.

In this situation, the default mode for a leader is to give instructions on the next steps. You feel like you are helping them because they are back making progress. But you didn’t improve them.

Instead of letting them know what to do, ask them to explain some of the things on their mind. Edge them closer to the next step, but without telling them. The most used coaching conversation technique is the GROW model.

Ask them their Goal — what is it they want to achieve. This is applicable beyond work, but as a leader at work, you are asking them to describe the problem and what they want to do about it.

Next, ask them to describe their Reality. What is it about this problem that they cannot work out. You can ask exploratory questions to make sure they get clarity about the problem space.

Now, knowing their goal and their reality, what are their Options? Ask them to explore all the options available to them, you can again ask exploratory questions and see if they can find more alternatives.

Lastly, ask them what Will they do now. They should understand the problem and its complexities, the options available to them, and be able to decide a path forward. Importantly, you cannot direct their actions, and you cannot even suggest that they try something else.

Your role is to ask questions to make sure they fully understand their path forward. You can then ask them what help they might need in achieving it.

Then you let them go. Even if you think you would have attacked the problem differently, you need to let them do it their way. In this way, you coach and don’t command. The same applies to conversations with your teams. Allow them the space to find their path.

5. Collaborators as a default

There is a tendency for the leader to hold decision responsibility. All the team members present the options, and the leader makes an informed decision. This will not work in an agile organisation.

Within an agile organisation, if a leader says something authoritatively, they are likely to be responded to with something like this — “I’m sorry, but the data doesn’t support your assertion”. Or, “Thanks, but we’ll test that against the models and get back to you”. Even, “We’ve already tried that, and it failed”.

As such, the best type of decision making in this situation is one of collaboration. To adopt this, you do not have meetings to update the boss. You have sessions to solve problems. It is the transition from passive participation, to constructive conflict.

At the end of the problem-solving sessions, it is not a list of agreed tasks from the boss it was an understanding of the problem and the strategies the teams need to address it.

The agile leader acknowledges that it is better to have more brains finding the best answers, rather than just one. Seeking assistance for problem-solving becomes the default.

6. Understand their people

Leaders need to become mentors to their teams, and the best mentors truly understand their mentees. It takes effort to learn about your team, but it is essential.

People don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care — Theodore Roosevelt

There are three steps to becoming a better mentor; establish boundaries, find out their values, and identify their definition of success. With this information, you can have a conversation and know when to stretch their expectations of themselves, and when to support them because it isn’t working well.

This is the balance required of agile leaders. Know when to push them beyond the limits they believe about themselves, and know when to pull back and support them.

For than just understanding the individuals, they need to understand their teams. An agile, multi-disciplinary team takes on a personality. Success breeds collective confidence, and the improvement focussed mindset builds trust. As an agile leader, it is essential to understand the effect of your words on the individuals and the team.

7. On the system, not in the system

It has been said that managers optimise within the system, while leaders change the system for optimal outputs. As a leader, your primary role is to create the right environment for the team to flourish. Identify blockers to progress and remove them. Identify essential interfaces and develop a system of transport across that seam.

In agile leadership, this becomes even more important. The team is working with agility, problems arise and need to be dealt with quickly — or better yet, they do not occur because they have been identified previously. Agile teams work with two to six-week horizons. Agile leaders need to work with six-week to six-month horizons.

In an agile organisation, there should be gradual and continued improvement and refinement of the system. To achieve this, everyone cannot be focussed on delivering results.

In fact, in recent studies, it was found that structuring for agility meant that leaders found themselves delegating more frequently. At the end of an agile transformation (taking around three-years for most companies), leaders had increased their time spent on strategy (from 10% to 40% of their time).

They had also dramatically decreased their time spent on managing general operations (from 60% to 25%), allowing for a slight increase in talent management (30% to 35%).

This additional time spent on strategy, on the business instead of in the business, allowed the companies to react to market changes and identify opportunities for improvement.

You might say that this is true for all leaders, but with the consistent crowding of calendars with meetings, and time spent making decisions, there is little cognitive power left for working on the business.

Working with agility means increasing the frequency and decreasing the duration of regular communications from leaders. It means shifting the focus to collectively solving problems rather than providing updates. These often daily short ‘stand-ups’ are essential in ensuring the leader is aware of the issues being seen and resolved, and if the proposed solutions don’t work, the leader finds out the next day.

Knowing that problems have been dealt with allows the leader to then think about the potential organisational or systemic issues that are causing these problems to arise. They work on the business, rather than in the business.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels
Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Agile organisations grow agile leaders first

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests all businesses could benefit from becoming more agile, in increasing their agility. But of the case studies reviewed, it is apparent that the success of this transformation comes through the mindset of the leaders.

Therefore, if you want to improve your business, start first with the mindset of your leaders. Developing your leaders will be difficult because of one simple reason.

The leaders you have in your company generally rose to those positions using skills that are not congruent with an agile mindset. To become great agile leaders will require them to release control to their teams. It will mean that they become more of a coach and mentor than a decision-maker. It will need them to act with humility and actively demonstrate it with their teams. This is opposite to their portrayal of competence and confidence.

But you need to start with them.

For if you establish a system that promotes agility, and couple it with a leader that wants to retain control, who shuns feedback and learning, and believes that the system can’t be improved. Your teams will struggle and eventually fail.

The best agile leaders are mirror leaders. They look out the window when talking about praise, looking to the team for the source of their success. And to the mirror when there is blame, knowing that it is not the team’s fault and they deserve none of the criticism.

The thing is, leaders who want the best for the company generally don’t fight against becoming more agile. They just don’t yet understand how it applies to their roles in the organisation, or don’t know how to approach their jobs in a way that does enhance the organisational agility.

It is the organisation’s job to help them understand. To help the people who don’t yet understand see an alternate way. It will take some time, but it is the leaders who go first, who will help this transition, and benefit the organisation, their teams, and themselves in the process.


Created by

Leon Purton

Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership.







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