What Is Agile Leadership?

May 6, 2023
What Is Agile Leadership?

You've probably heard a lot about the term agile leadership, and it's something that I spend a lot of my time on. I work with people in all sorts of organizations to help them develop a sense of agile leadership so I thought I'd spend just a couple of minutes explaining my take on what agile leadership is all about.

It's Not A Thing

When I talk about agile leadership, I'm not talking about a particular style of leadership - for example, servant-leadership - where the aim is to serve first and then lead or serve through the enabling of others.

I'm not talking about autocratic leadership, - where the leader tells people what's needed and sometimes even tells them how to do things.

When I talk about agile leadership, I'm also not talking about leaders at the top of an organization adopting a more agile mindset, something that you might get from the agile manifesto or something like Scrum.

It's Many Things

When I talk about agile leadership, I'm talking about servant-leadership AND autocratic leadership

AND other styles of leadership.

I'm talking about leaders at the top of an organization adopting more agile mindset AND leadership being spread throughout the organization so that everyone is both able to and confident to lead when it's appropriate for them to do so.

It's important...I might even say essential...to so many organizations because of the complexity and the pace of change. So I help organizational leaders establish what I call a more resilient and coherent culture.

Resilience and Coherence

From an agile leadership perspective, the words 'resilience' and 'coherence' are more important than 'agile'.

Resilience (n):
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

Resilience is essential for the organisation because, in a VUCA world, we cannot hope to predict the challenges and threats of the future and prepare ourselves for them. So instead, we build up our ability to withstand the unpredictable and recover quickly (and better). And because we will be operating in an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity - two characteristics that are inherently undesirable for human beings - we will need to develop resilience at the personal level too.

Coherence (n):
1. the quality of being logical and consistent.
2. the quality of forming a unified whole.

Agile Leadership is about being able to make sense of the context and providing the most appropriate form of leadership for that moment. Assessing the problem space, what the team is expecting and needing and then acting logically with that...consistently.

And consistency is important not just for the agile leader but for the whole of the organisation...which brings me to Standardised Autonomy...

Standardised Autonomy

The main aim of agile leadership is to create a culture where everybody knows the appropriate way to act and the appropriate form of leadership for the particular context that they find themselves in at the time...so that everyone can act more coherently.

In practice this means balancing two potentially competing aims - autonomy for teams and standardisation.

Because of the high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, we don't have the luxury of being able to escalate decisions up the management chain because by the time we have done that and the decision has filtered back down, the opportunity will likely have been missed or the context has changed or the risk has materialised. Because of this AND the fact that it's unlikely that the person at the end of that escalation path will know the right answer anyway we need the people facing the decision to be able to make the decision.

But autonomy runs the risk of every team acting completely independently of each other and potentially undermining or contradicting one another. How can we hope to be strategic and aligned in such a situation? We still need some form of standardisation.

Ultimately, we can't prescribe standardised ways of acting because context will be different and so complex so we need to look at something deeper than actions...beliefs and the experiences that form (and change) beliefs. This is a huge part of an agile leader...

For more details on Standardised Autonomy, check out this video of a talk I gave.

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What is the role of an "Agile Leader"?

The concept of agile leadership can be confusing because it is not about knowing all the answers or figuring things out yourself or telling people what to do.

And traditional leaders - leaders who've had success already think - "Well, that's what I have done so far and it's worked." A lot us of have been brought up, trained and rewarded to think that this is our responsibility...to know the answer or find it out. But agile leadership requires acceptance that this is likely impossible in many contexts now.

An agile leader's primary role now is to role model contextual leadership, support people who are inevitably going to feel uncomfortable with ambiguity and change, and support the spread of leadership as a capability throughout the organisation.

Dealing with people, dealing with teams who have different levels of autonomy and confidence requires a lot of leadership flexibility.

Photo by Adel Grober on Unsplash

Agile Leadership will call on lots of different personal attributes as well, because sometimes you'll be directing, sometimes you'll be guiding, sometimes you'll be enabling, sometimes you'll be coaching.

And a lot of that stuff will be happening multiple times with multiple different people in multiple different contexts every day. It will challenge our perfectionism, our trust, our ego, our perception of strength and many other personal and psychological characteristics.

Leaders need to be a lot more agile in terms of the flexibility of their leadership approach - agile with a small 'a' - and making sure there's coherence through their behaviors and the rest of the organization.

So that's what I mean by agile leadership.

I hope that makes sense. And I also hope it sparked a few questions.

If you want to learn more about agile leadership and how to lead the transition to a more agile culture within your organisation, why not join me on my Certified Agile Leadership class next month?


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