What Is Agile Leadership? Agile Leadership In A Nutshell

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Understanding agile leadership

Traditional leadership practices are outdated and ineffective in many modern businesses. Indeed, we don’t need research to prove that one of the main causes of job dissatisfaction is to have a bad boss. If any of you has had at least some work experience, you might be one of the many people who fell victim to a bad boss, someone with a complete lack of leadership skills, trying to control, own you, and micromanage your work.

Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.

Agile leadership, with its foundation in agility, is a decision-making and decision-implementation framework. Although agile is somewhat of a buzzword now, agile principles were used for decades in military strategy, among other things. 

In an organizational setting, agile leadership helps a business navigate so-called VUCA environments – or those environments that are volatile, uncertain, chaotic, or ambiguous. This is achieved by building a high-performance team that actively applies agile principles to company processes, structures, and people development. In each case, the goal is to increase competitiveness. 

It should be noted that agile leadership is not a leadership approach in and of itself. Instead, it supports other styles including transformational leadership, complexity leadership, and trait-based leadership

Agile leadership impacts two levels:

  • Structural – incorporating processes, roles, responsibilities, KPIs, etc. 
  • Behavioral – describing actions taken by leaders in certain situations, underpinned by particular agile abilities or philosophies. 

When implemented correctly, the levels mutually reinforce each other which facilitates buy-in across the organization.

Six attributes of agile leadership

What constitutes agile leadership may vary from business to business. However, many have chosen to take principles from the agile manifesto and adapt them to suit.

With that in mind, here are six general attributes agile leaders and leadership promotes:

  1. Humility – Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella once said that “It’s time to go from know-it-alls to learn-it-alls.” Leaders who are comfortable with not knowing something embody the confidence their teams need to achieve their goals.
  2. Autonomy – true agile leaders communicate outcomes to teams while letting them decide how they will achieve the desired result. This empowers teams and results in a feeling of accomplishment and ownership.
  3. Flexibility – when self-managing teams are first established in the early adoption phase, there is a heightened risk of errors. Agile leadership is prepared for this eventuality and is not afraid to modify or adapt the plan at regular intervals.
  4. Collaboration – agile leaders realize that problem solving is more effective when more than one person is involved in finding the answer. Some cases may necessitate that information is shared across departments, promoting organizational growth and expertise.
  5. Understanding – agile leaders are also mentors and understand each member of their team well. To build relationships with subordinates, they establish boundaries and then identify their values and definition of success. This allows the leader to push a team member beyond what they think they can achieve or pull back and provide support if necessary.
  6. Optimization – for a team to flourish, leaders need to create the right environment. Problems need to be dealt with quickly or identified before they have a chance to occur. Since agile leadership tends to delegate tasks to others, leaders have more time to continually refine and optimize strategy and systems.

Key takeaways:

  • Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles on the individual or organizational level.
  • Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 
  • What agile leadership looks like depends on the particular business or industry. However, most agree that agile leaders should display humility, autonomy, flexibility, collaboration, understanding, and optimization.

Connected Business Concepts

Agile Methodology

Agile started as a lightweight development method compared to heavyweight software development, which is the core paradigm of the previous decades of software development. By 2001 the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was born as a set of principles that defined the new paradigm for software development as a continuous iteration. This would also influence the way of doing business.

Lean Methodology

The Agile methodology has been primarily thought of for software development (and other business disciplines have also adopted it). Lean thinking is a process improvement technique where teams prioritize the value streams to improve it continuously. Both methodologies look at the customer as the key driver to improvement and waste reduction. Both methodologies look at improvement as something continuous.

Scaled Agile

The scaled agile framework (SAFe) helps larger organizations manage the challenges they face when practicing agile. The scaled agile framework was first introduced in 2011 by software industry guru Dean Leffingwell in his book Agile Software Requirements. The framework details a set of workflow patterns for implementing agile practices at an enterprise scale. This is achieved by guiding roles and responsibilities, planning and managing work, and establishing certain values that large organizations must uphold.


Scrum is a methodology co-created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland for effective team collaboration on complex products. Scrum was primarily thought for software development projects to deliver new software capability every 2-4 weeks. It is a sub-group of agile also used in project management to improve startups’ productivity.


Kanban is a lean manufacturing framework first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Kanban framework is a means of visualizing work as it moves through identifying potential bottlenecks. It does that through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing to optimize engineering processes, speed up manufacturing products, and improve the go-to-market strategy.

DevOps Engineering

DevOps refers to a series of practices performed to perform automated software development processes. It is a conjugation of the term “development” and “operations” to emphasize how functions integrate across IT teams. DevOps strategies promote seamless building, testing, and deployment of products. It aims to bridge a gap between development and operations teams to streamline the development altogether.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management (APM) is a strategy that breaks large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. In the APM methodology, each project is completed in small sections – often referred to as iterations. Each iteration is completed according to its project life cycle, beginning with the initial design and progressing to testing and then quality assurance.

Design Sprint

design sprint is a proven five-day process where critical business questions are answered through speedy design and prototyping, focusing on the end-user. A design sprint starts with a weekly challenge that should finish with a prototype, test at the end, and therefore a lesson learned to be iterated.

Design Thinking

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.

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