Agile leadership

What is agile leadership?

This is an abstract.

Agile leadership encompasses the type of leadership needed in an agile environment. Agile impacts all employees and leaders and their behaviors. Agile leadership is focused on bringing about positive change in the organization and facilitating agile principles and an agile mindset within the organization. For this agile leaders need to be a role model for the agile mindset.

Why agile leadership? To keep pace with rapidly changing requirements!

Today's leaders are striving to keep pace with rapidly changing business needs and must recognize that rapid adaptation is critical to their success. They need to rethink their role as a leader, their relationship with their employees, and the culture of their company.

Leadership in Agile Lean environments requires a new understanding of leadership.

The leadership mindset that is at the bottom of agile leadership is well described in Douglas McGregor's X-Y theory. A good summary of this can be found in the book by Ulf Brandes: "Management Y: Agile, Scrum, Design Thinking & Co.: So gelingen der Wandel zur attraktiven und zukunftsfähigen Organisation", Campus, 2014, page 22ff. The following graphic was also taken from this book.

Comparison of Theory Y and Theory X

Agility needs an environment in which intrinsic motivation is encouraged.

The Theory Y belief system says that people are intrinsically ambitious and want to make their contribution to something. People are intrinsically motivated according to Theory Y. They can manage themselves and impose discipline and control on themselves to achieve meaningful goals. They see work as a source of satisfaction and take pleasure in their performance.

The opposite pole is an environment in which theory X is promoted - consciously or unconsciously. The belief here is that people are lazy by nature and try to avoid work as much as possible. According to theory X, people need to be extrinsically motivated. They need to be guided by guidelines and rewarded or sanctioned by appropriate measures. Many traditionally structured organizations have rules and instruments that are aligned to Theory X.

Agile leadership means that I create a framework that pays into the Theory Y picture.

Agility means designing an organization according to Y principles - and letting go of X techniques. This requires trust, courage and foresight. That's why agility is easy to understand, but challenging to implement.

Agile leadership means providing alignment and framework to enable autonomy.

Autonomy and common alignment are often perceived as opposites. In fact, autonomy needs alignment and a framework to be effective. The trick is to provide leadership in an agile organization that provides alignment and an organizational framework that enables autonomy to work towards a common goal. Chaos and anarchy, by the way, are the opposite of agility - albeit a willful misconception that is readily used.

Aspects of leadership: Alignment, autonomy and constraints

Little alignment and little autonomy.

This is a micromanagement culture with a lot of ad hoc tasks. It is inefficient because different teams are constantly running in different and changing directions.

Little alignment and a lot of autonomy.

Here, each team does what it wants. A difficult task for managers who can only hope that the right thing happens

A lot of alignment, but little autonomy.

This is the top-down culture, where goals and path are set. This means a lot of work for managers.

A lot of alignment and a lot of autonomy.

This is the goal in a Lean-Agile organization: shared alignment via vision and goals while maintaining autonomy over the path.

An Agile leader needs new tools for leadership

The "Y basic attitude" and the need of an agile organization for alignment and an enabling organizational framework needs suitable instruments for leadership. The four principles of lean management are a helpful guideline for leadership in an agile organization.

Management tools according to the Lean Leadership principles

 An agile leader should bring these principles to life in daily work. This also means that they should develop their own repertoire of techniques, which usually differ significantly from the leadership tools prevalent in organisations today.

The separation of powers promotes leadership

Gewaltenteilung ist das Prinzip, das die drei Führungsaspekte Ausrichtung, Rahmen und Autonomie trennt. Dadurch wird erreicht:
The principle of separation of powers divides the three leadership aspects of direction, framework and autonomy. This achieves:

  • a clearer focus

  • better decisions through mutual responsibility

  • accelerating decision-making and control by moving it closer to where the work is done.

Agile leadership should be formally introduced.

Classical organisations with one "directive leader" have the challenge of the organisational structures working through the bundling of various responsibilities into a single person. In this context it is not possible to map the divided powers to newly created agile leadership roles (such as the Scrum Master) and they remain undocumented, neutered and unattractive. Therefore it is one of the most important steps in an agile transformation - and the introduction of agile leadership - to work together with the company's HR department to officially map the division of powers across the agile leadership roles. This makes the new agile roles transparent, officially empowered and properly established in a sustainable manner. Only then will agile leadership become effective.


Frank Eberhard

wibas GmbH

Frank Eberhard

Otto-Hesse-Str. 19B

64293 Darmstadt

+49 6151 503349-0