What does it take to be an agile leader?

21st century leaders face a raft of challenges: technological change, disruptive forces in industry after industry, and global competition. Agile promises to drive through complexity, open up innovation, deliver value to stakeholders faster, and produce twice as much in half the time. But what does it truly mean to be an agile leader?

Leadership support is critical to the success of agile initiatives. Without leadership support, agile will likely fail [1]. However, many executives have not been schooled in agile frameworks — their education often comes from 20th management techniques that reinforced the future could be predicted with sufficient planning [2].

Lead by example

Start by taking 3-5 year plans and turning it into a roadmap. Plan the first 3-months, and then inspect that plan and adapt it as necessary every month. In this way, you’ll demonstrate to your teams that not only do you expect everyone to “Sprint”, but that you feel it’s an important part of how executives manage their own work as well.

Next, turn strategic initiatives that you’ll start to work on over the next 3-months into a Backlog: a list of work that prioritised in terms of its value.

Manage the System, not the People

A command-and-control management paradigm is what we were all taught. Make a list of work and hand it out to people. Then, get status reports to make sure everyone.

Agile asks teams to be self-organising. This doesn’t mean self-managing. It means creating an operating environment that supports teams to:

  • Understand your vision and goals.
  • Understand the outcomes they’ve been asked to create.
  • Solve problems in the most expeditious way.
  • Learn, fail-fast, and continuously improve across people, process and tools.

Creating an environment, a system of work, that enables them to discover and deliver solutions themselves, and promoting transparency through techniques such as visual management (or even Kanban), alleviates the need for leaders to expend energy handing out tasks and keeping tabs on the detail of what’s going on.

Understand the Culture and create Psychological Safety

Agile ways of working often clash with more traditional, management cultures. Permission-based cultures can create an expectation that managers think and staff are just “doers”. People wait to be told what to do. And when things go wrong, the blame culture responds by saying “It’s not my fault, I was told to do it”. Undoing this behaviour starts by creating psychological safety

A leader’s role is to create Psychological Safety [3] — an environment that supports people to feel it’s ok to call out where the problems are so that they can be addressed without fear of repercussion.

Agile Leadership Coaching and Training

ZXM has been coaching and supporting leaders to become agile for a decade. Our consultants are experienced agile practitioners and can help you with:

  • Training – Lean, Agile Leadership of teams, projects and large-scale, complex programs
  • Coaching – On-the-job mentoring and support to apply knowledge


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1. VersionOne (2017) 11th Annual State of Agile Report.

2. Di Fiore, A (2018) Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile. Harvard Business Review. Online at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/planning-doesnt-have-to-be-the-enemy-of-agile

3. Edmonson, A. C. (2002) Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams, in West, M. (Ed) International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

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