The “Agile” label everywhere, and on Leadership

Agile labels

Have we gotten to the point where everything – including Modern Leadership – is getting the “Agile” label?  This is what this post is about.

From early on, I’ve been a strong advocate for doing software development the Agile way for one simple reason: It is pure common sense, reflecting the natural way we as humans / developers think and act in an environment with high uncertainty on what the user / customer really needs. 

Great, says the consultancy industry. This Agile Wave has the potential for some serious surfing. Let’s label everything “Agile” and push the need for all sorts of “Agile Certifications”. And so they did.

Agile, essentially in the wrappings of Scrum, has undoubtedly had a transformative effect on software development in the two decades, following the Agile Manifesto in 2001. Even the most stubborn organizations have come to realize the fact, that you’re not able up front to develop and freeze a software requirements specification capturing what the user / customer really needs. 

Note: The misguided and uncritical use of Agile practices from the software domain to the physical domain is a full topic for a future post – stay tuned.

Executive summary

Just like Agile (for software development) was essentially common sense 20+ years ago, what today is touted “Agile Leadership” is common sense Leadership. No need to label it “Agile” – just modern, common sense Leadership.

The New Agile Black seems to be on Leadership ... Agile Leadership

But – what is “Agile Leadership”? Is it in fact something new and unique, or did these organizations just put an Agile label on modern, common sense Leadership practices?

Let’s have a look at a few:

Six Sigma Global Institute on Agile Leadership

An Agile Leader is a manager who has developed a core understanding of Agile principals while incorporating the Agile framework of Scrum to better improve project results. Agile Leaders must be supportive and focus on the needs of other team members. By encouraging team involvement and support, a sense of community can be developed and sustained within a team. Stronger relationships are created between team members and other stakeholders, which leads to improved business performance and customer satisfaction.”

Scrum Alliance on Agile Leadership

An agile leader

    • Operates effectively amid uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change
    • Is knowledgeable about agile values, approaches, and practices
    • Surfaces more creative solutions through increased self-awareness, a growth mindset, and engaging others
    • Aligns and empowers teams toward delivering more customer value
    • Personally integrates feedback and experiments, and adapts their ways
    • Takes a collaborative continuous-improvement approach to organizational effectiveness
    • Catalyzes change in others and facilitates organizational change” on Agile Leadership

Agile Leaders focus on three things: 

(1) they create and nurture a culture in which experimentation and learning are embraced; 

(2) they collaborate with employees (at all levels in the organization) to find common values to create a greater goal for the company and the teams; and 

(3) they create an organizational structure that reinforces and rewards the other two dimensions.”

Airfocus on Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the practice of removing roadblocks to success and streamlining productivity. As agile teams are already proficient in collaboration, the focus of an agile leader is on reducing waste and empowering teams to reach their full potential.”

Agile Leadership Journey on Agile Leadership

Agile leadership sharpens focus, accelerating action and responsiveness of a group of people or organization.”

Vantagecircle on Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is a growth mindset. It is a leadership approach that creates self-management skills. In an agile environment, teams collaborate, learn and get quick feedback from users. … Agile leaders do not micromanage the people nor create total freedom. They make a balance between anarchy and strict structure.”

IMD on Agile Leadership

“According to the results of the research, agile leaders are Humble, Adaptable, Visionary and Engaged. These must-have competencies inform their business-focused actions.”

Agile Scrum on Agile Leadership

“Excellent Agile Leader has four core competencies: Ability to define the vision, motivate, gain feedback, and ability to influence through themselves, others.”

Wrike on Agile Leadership

“The following adjectives can be used to denote true Agile leadership:

    • Adaptable
    • Positive
    • Open
    • Non-egotistical
    • Curious”

Agile42 on Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the ability to be flexible, use different approaches, and adapt to the context and the people involved. Because of this dependence on context, expectations and relationships, there are no leadership behaviors that are inherently positive or negative in and of themselves. Rather, there are leadership behaviors which are more or less appropriate within the context. 

Agile leadership is about the ability to make sense of the circumstances and adopt behaviors which are coherent with what the group of people you are leading in a specific context feels comfortable with. Incoherent behaviors are those that are not helpful within a specific situation and might be perceived negatively in the given cultural context. For this reason, Agile leadership is useful for any organization hoping to succeed in today’s climate, not only Agile organizations.”

Gladwell Academy on Agile Leadership

“True Agile leaders have a clear vision. They don’t give order, but inspire and motivate. They create a working environment in which everyone can become self-absorbed and work autonomously. What qualities you need to become an Agile leader? We’ve listed the five most prominent features:

    1. The ability to inspire and motivate teams and individual employees.
    2. Good communication skills and a healthy dose of empathy.
    3. The desire to constantly develop yourself and the organization.
    4. A helicopter view and the ability to delegate.
    5. Patience and perseverance. An Agile organization can’t develop overnight.”

All the above boiled-down into its essence

Taking specific Agile frameworks out of the equation, all of the above is a collection of characteristics of the modern, effective and efficient leader. “Agile” has no patent here.

If “Agile Leadership” in fact was something new and unique, different from “normal Leadership”, then a “normal Leader” would not

    • have a clear vision
    • have perseverance
    • have the ability to delegate
    • inspire and motivate
    • be supportive
    • operate effectively in a VUCA environment
    • be self-aware
    • have a growth mindset
    • engage others
    • empower teams
    • welcome experimentation and learning
    • remove roadblocks
    • be humble
    • be adaptable
    • … you get the picture …

That is clearly nonsense. “Agile Leadership” is not something special / exotic. It is part of – not equal to – being a modern Leader.