EFS Consulting
07/08/2024

The Agile Leadership Guide: Importance, Principles, and Tips

Leadership in an agile context differs significantly from traditional leadership approaches. This article explains what makes agile leadership unique and why it is crucial in today's highly dynamic and complex world.

What Makes Leadership “Agile Leadership”? 

Before answering this, it’s helpful to recall what agility is all about. It’s not about running the fastest sprints or launching as many Agile Release Trains as possible. Instead, it’s about operating effectively and creating value in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world filled with ambiguous situations and fleeting opportunities. These conditions are known as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) and demand a profound transformation and evolution of the company. 

Challenges Posed by VUCA 

In this highly complex, ambiguous, and rapidly changing world, no single person has all the information and perspectives needed to make good decisions for everyone involved. Instead, it is essential to create conditions where as many relevant pieces of information and viewpoints as possible can be included in decisions, while also speeding up decision-making processes and keeping feedback loops short. 

Traditional Leaders in a VUCA World 

Making more decisions faster while involving more people with diverse backgrounds and expertise – how does that work? The image of a leader who always knows what to do and gives orders to their employees is still widespread. However, a leader who operates according to this traditional model is hardly effective when: 

  • Their employees understand the topic better than the leader. 
  • Quick adjustments and decisions with specific know-how are required. 
  • Diverse perspectives and expertise are needed. 
  • The team must work independently and creatively. 
  • Trust and collaboration within the team need to be fostered. 
  • Complex and unpredictable challenges arise. 
  • An open and flexible work environment is necessary. 

Why Does Agile Leadership Make Sense? 

A good agile leader is effective in complex, rapidly changing, and ambiguous environments. They achieve this by creating conditions that enable their employees to work effectively towards common goals. Agile leaders foster a supportive environment where teams can act autonomously, continuously learn, and improve. This requires entirely different skills than those of a traditional leader who simply assigns known tasks to their employees. 

 

“Agile Leadership” vs. “Traditional Leadership” 

The differences between traditional leadership styles and agile leadership styles are significant and reflect the different values, goals, and perspectives used in traditional and agile environments. 

Definition of Agile Leadership 

Agile leadership is a leadership approach focused on promoting flexibility, adaptability, and continuous improvement while ensuring a high level of employee involvement and empowerment. 

Definition of Traditional Leadership 

Traditional leadership, on the other hand, is characterized by clear hierarchies, centralized decision-making, and strict control. Leaders are primarily responsible for planning, organizing, and controlling work processes, while employees perform specific tasks within a defined framework. 

Key Differences Between Agile and Traditional Leadership 

Here is an overview of the main differences between the two approaches concerning various characteristics relevant to leadership behavior: 

 

Characteristics  Traditional Leader  Agile Leader 
Focus  Ensuring work is done “correctly”  Creating conditions for employees to work as effectively as possible 
Expertise  Can take over and often perform the work better than employees  Employees typically have much deeper expertise than the leader 
Quality Assurance  Leader controls the quality of work results  Employees cooperatively set quality standards and commit to maintaining them 
Work Distribution  Leader breaks down goals into smaller tasks and assigns them to employees  Leader ensures with employees that goals are realistic and meaningful; employees organize work distribution themselves 
Decision Making  Centralized: Leader makes decisions with varying degrees of employee input  Decentralized: Leader aligns with common goals and lets teams make decisions to achieve them 
Performance Understanding  Focuses on individual performance and skills  Sees teams as the smallest performance unit of a company 
Orientation  Rules, processes, regulations, hierarchies  Values, principles, and interpersonal cooperation 
Goals  Focus on internal goals and metrics  Strong focus on customer value and feedback 

 

Agile leadership shifts focus and moves much responsibility, traditionally held by leaders, to employees. Here’s a brief comparison of traditional versus agile leadership focuses: 

Traditional Leadership Focuses  Agile Leadership Focuses 
  • Stability and predictability 
  • Control of work 
  • Fixed processes and structures 
  • Information control and need-based communication 
  • Individual performance 

 

  • Flexibility and adaptability 
  • Empowerment and trust 
  • Continuous improvement 
  • Transparency and openness 
  • Collaboration and teamwork 

 

 

Agile leadership doesn’t eliminate traditional elements but rather develops employees to take on many traditional leadership responsibilities, like ensuring work quality. In agile environments, it’s crucial to maintain both flexibility and stability, creating conditions that can handle unexpected events. These conditions place higher demands on leaders and employees than traditional structures. Agile frameworks provide proven best practices for these tasks. 

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Agile Leadership 

It’s important to note that saying “agile is good” and “traditional is bad” isn’t helpful. However, traditional leadership methods often fail in complex, dynamic environments. 

Advantages of Agile Leadership: 

  • Delivers effective results even under complex and unpredictable conditions, where traditional management often fails. 
  • Promotes a flexible and adaptive work environment that can quickly respond to changes. 
  • Increases employee motivation and engagement through greater autonomy and responsibility. 

Disadvantages of Agile Leadership: 

  • Implementing agile leadership can be challenging and demanding. 
  • Requires continuous training and adaptation, consuming extra resources and time. 
  • Can lead to uncertainties and confusion if not clearly communicated, structured, and trained. 

 

5 EFS Success Tips: Quick Wins for Agile Leadership 

1. Start with Why – your own why 

When deciding to bring more agility into an organization, start with understanding the “why.” Clarify what you aim to achieve, what problem you want to solve with agility, and which opportunities you like to enhance. Further, agile leaders need to understand why changes are necessary and what the consequences are if not implemented before convincing their team. Then, communicate the urgency of change.

2. See traditional and agile leadership goals as both/and, not either/or

In agile transformations, leaders face both/and questions rather than either/or decisions. The best results come when employees are involved in answering these questions and actively defining the necessary guidelines and conditions. 

  • How can we ensure flexibility and adaptability while providing necessary stability and predictability? 
  • How can we empower and trust teams while ensuring the quality of work outcomes? 
  • How can we continuously improve while relying on sustainable processes and structures? 
  • How can we maintain transparency and openness without overwhelming employees with information and protecting company secrets and data privacy? 
  • How can we promote collaboration and teamwork without ignoring individual performance? 

3. Make the intent and context clear

Instead of giving detailed instructions, leaders should clearly explain the context and intent behind goals and tasks. This enables employees to make informed decisions and take responsibility, which is crucial in agile environments for fostering flexibility and adaptability. 

4. Reflect on one’s own perspective on employees

 

The way leaders view their employees shapes the conditions they create. Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Y are helpful here. 

  • Theory X assumes employees are lazy, avoid work, and need strict control and punishment to be motivated. 
  • Theory Y assumes employees find work natural and fulfilling, show motivation and engagement when aligned with company goals, and take responsibility and find creative solutions when given the chance. 

Changing the perception of employees is a long process. The first step is recognizing when you tend to believe employees fit Theory X and exploring alternatives to explain observed behavior.

5. Consider Phases and Maturity Models in Leadership Style

Agile teams and organizations evolve. Understanding different models of this development is useful for agile leaders.  

For example, the Tuckman model describes four team development phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. In early phases, leaders provide clear visions and facilitate; in later phases, they promote empowerment and self-organization. 

The Shu-Ha-Ri approach describes learning stages: Shu (learn basics), Ha (experiment), and Ri (master and innovate).  

Spiral Dynamics considers evolutionary development of consciousness and culture in teams, helping leaders understand and address different values and needs. 

Integrating these models helps agile leaders understand their team’s development, achieving organizational goals and promoting team members’ well-being and continuous growth. 

 

Conclusion 

Agile leadership is different from traditional leadership in goals and focuses, especially in complex, dynamic environments. The more complex, fast-paced, and uncertain the situation, the more important it is to include diverse perspectives and expertise quickly and effectively. Agile leaders communicate clear visions and goals and create context and intent behind tasks to foster responsibility and proactive action. 

In summary, agile leadership offers many benefits but also places higher demands on leaders and employees. 

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