Blog: Is agile leadership really what we need?


Is agile leadership really what we need?

The use of the word “Leadership” is potentially confusing as many of the behaviors that are defined are more about management than they are about leadership. So how can we truly know if agile leadership is what we need?
Is agile leadership really what we need?

Since the 70s, the rate of change has continued to accelerate. So, clearly, agility is needed. But, if we are to believe the business press, there is a magic formula, Agile Leadership, that is going to solve all our ills and bring fortune, calm, and happiness to all. Once again, our yearning for simplicity has trivialized what is a complex issue beyond what the need for understanding justifies. Many may be disappointed.

The undoubted success of Agile as a way of developing software has spawned numerous variants, now including Agile Leadership, Agile Product Development, and even Agile HR. And, I do not dispute that many of the associated initiatives may lead to improvements in the organizations committed to them. Many of these initiatives are even based on research by great minds. Based on that research, various attributes are attached to these apparent exceptional leaders, including but not limited to tolerance of ambiguity, creativity, emotional resilience, vision, and flexibility. 

So, let’s try to summarize what we mean by Agile Leadership. I prefer to do this in terms of its outcomes as those are by what we measure success. In my mind, every Agile Leader ensures that their organization is:

  • Is resourced with motivated and talented individuals who share a common vision and set of values;
  • Focuses on satisfying stakeholder expectations to achieve its vision;
  • Implements solutions, adjustments, and corrections at the earliest opportunity;
  • Promptly elicits, responds to, and incorporates feedback;
  • Monitors, measures and tracks the extent to which it is meeting stakeholder expectations;
  • At all times, actively engages those who are best equipped to handle decisions, moving final decision-making as close as possible to each issue.

My challenges to much of the popular thinking about Agile Leadership are these:

  1. If we are genuinely to seek to identify and/or develop GREAT Leaders, we don’t only need to know what differentiates GREAT Leaders from the rest, we also need to know what they have in common with the rest, as these attributes may form an essential foundation.
  2. Many of the differentiators described are often characteristics or attributes, not clearly articulated in terms of behaviors. If we don’t define the behaviors, it is difficult to equip others to display them.
  3. The use of the word “Leadership” is potentially confusing as many of the behaviors that are defined are more about management than they are about Leadership.

Picking up on the third point, those of you who have read my prior articles will know that my own research and experience over the past 40 years enabled me to diagnose four dimensions of GREAT LEADERS. I have defined these below from our Quaternion Profile. 

In our research, the exceptional leaders (who were definitely agile) were good at all of these competencies and simply excelled at a few. But, those who were not good at any one or more of the 52, could not compensate by being better at others, even those that specifically enabled agility. 

Note: All of the competencies detailed below are needed for any “manager” or “leader” to perform well. The italicized entries have been annotated and/or highlighted to indicate those demonstrated by exceptional leaders, who clearly have the attributes now associated with Agile Leadership.

Management: Optimizing the use of resources to deliver the vision; making things happen

  • Recruiting and deploying employees – especially individuals willing to adapt and flex to meet stakeholder needs
  • Clarifying employee roles – and adapting those as needed
  • Planning performance – in a rolling and adaptive process rather episodically
  • Enabling and enhancing performance – especially removing obstacles to excellent performance
  • Monitoring and measuring performance – and responding promptly to variances
  • Assessing and evaluating performance – against stakeholder expectations and responses
  • Holding others accountable 
  • Managing interpersonal conflicts
  • Committing to specific contributions to the organization 
  • Facilitating individual development – to enable excellence
  • Engaging and retaining employees – to win commitment to flexibility and adaptability
  • Workforce planning
  • Managing environment and non-human resources

Personal effectiveness: Optimizing personal contributions and impact

  • Driving own career and development
  • Demonstrating self-awareness
  • Establishing personal presence and impact – to gain buy-in
  • Responding constructively to change – in demands and in circumstances
  • Demonstrating resilience & perseverance – to avoid denial and procrastination
  • Communicating to achieve shared understanding – to keep the vision alive
  • Influencing and persuading others – to drive change
  • Meeting or exceeding commitments
  • Building and sustaining professional brand and networks 
  • Building effective working relationships
  • Building respect and trust
  • Demonstrating empathy
  • Acting with integrity

Business Acumen: Demonstrating the knowledge, skills and aptitude to operate in a complex and changing environment

  • Demonstrating understanding of the whole organization 
  • Displaying political and organizational savvy – knowing how decisions get made
  • Demonstrating commercial acumen – agility without this can be costly
  • Demonstrating functional expertise
  • Project management
  • Using data effectively 
  • Decision-making 
  • Driving innovation 
  • Solving problems 
  • Risk management 
  • Resolving conflicting priorities 
  • Negotiating to achieve robust outcomes
  • Developing persuasive business proposals

Leadership: Creating a vision of the future, bringing it alive, and securing the commitment and resources to deliver it

  • Connecting and engaging with strategic stakeholders 
  • Making sense of the strategic landscape 
  • Visioning and direction setting 
  • Path-finding and strategic planning
  • Structuring and resourcing the organization
  • Setting values and standards
  • Taking accountability 
  • Inspiring others
  • Building the brand
  • Championing change and innovation 
  • Sustaining focus and momentum 
  • Acting when faced with ambiguity and uncertainty 
  • Making the tough calls 

So, back to the question, “Is Agile Leadership really what we need?” I do not believe that there is a quick answer, so here is mine:

The caliber of those in leadership and management positions is the single most significant differentiating characteristic of sustainably successful organizations.

We must cease to simplify roles beyond what is meaningful; managing people and organizations simply isn’t simple!

There is a complex set of competencies that are all required to be good at leadership and management. If those competencies are demonstrated well, then excellence in a subset enables the individual to respond more promptly and effectively (with agility) to changing demands and circumstances. That can produce substantial competitive advantage. 

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Topics: Leadership

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