Euphoria on the one and uncertainty on the other hand: In terms of agile leadership you can see great enthusiasm and thirst for action on the market. More and more companies are playing with the thought of implementing agile methods. However, if you ask for more detailed information, many people are uncertain about what this agile concept really is and how meaningful it is for their company. Here are a few thoughts from three different perspectives: the one from an individual, a team and an organization.


Agile leadership picks up speed

In my opinion there are three resons why agile leadership picked up so much speed in the last few months.

First of all, companies and teams are becoming more and more aware that they can no longer rely on the state of facts, at least not in the long-term. This means that not everything which is right today, will be right tomorrow. That is the reason why companies need to find a way to react quickly to changes and learn what is relevant and what is not.

The second aspect why this topic is currently gaining importance is that the increasing complexity and uncertainty of the market and the entire company-, product-, and brand world. To be future-oriented, companies must not only be flexible but also try to create innovation and products or services under complex circumstances. By letting people from different teams work together, companies are hoping to find the best solution to this challenge. Interdisciplinary work is a key factor of agile leadership:

Complex markets

Complex and fast-changing markets – companies must learn how to react to those changes

The third reason is a changed view of the leadership culture in general. In the last few years, it has become clear that people want to think and work more independently than they have been allowed to in companies with classic hierarchical structures. Just think about the generation Y and the upcoming generation. The classical understanding of leadership is no longer contemporary. Modern work demands new models and approaches. Agile leadership is one of them.


Implementation of agile leadership: top-down or first in the team?


When we talk about agility, we generally talk about three levels: the individual level, the team level and the organizational level. Companies must first weigh up whether and how agile methods can be meaningful for them. In this way they can avoid rushing into this topic and subsequently fail with the implementation. Therefore it is important to know that agile leadership does not always have to be introduced throughout the whole company in order to be successful. In the beginning it can make sense to introduce it only to particular teams or divisions. Especially if a team has to deal with very complex and different tasks or has to cover up different topics. The level of complexity is an indicator that makes agile methods either meaningful or not.


If the company’s goal is an agile corporate culture, a top-down approach is certainly needed. Therefore, a complete cultural change must take place, which is impossible without the management level on board. The company has to find answers to questions such as who, where, when and how to participate in projects and decisions, how to deal with information release internally and how much the existing hierarchies should be softened. Transparency is a very important factor as well.


There is one central question before deciding whether to introduce it top-down or in individual teams: How far do we want to go and how far do we have to go to stay competitive and sustainable?


Agile leadership on three levels


To recognize potential resistance and prevent them at an early stage, a company should first analyse the three different levels of agile leadership: the individual, team and organization level.


Agile leadership on the individual level

As an individual, I have to ask myself following questions: how transparent am I at the moment, how much can I work independently and how much responsibility I bear and can bear. If I currently work in a very hierarchical-oriented team, where there are almost exclusively instructions from the supervisor, the introduction to an independent and agile way of working can be relatively difficult. If I already have a lot of freedom and work almost independently the difference to agile methods is perhaps hardly noticeable.

Secondly you have to question the status quo: How self-responsible and transparent do I want to be? There are certainly many people for whom agile leadership is not (yet) the declared goal and perhaps will never be.

The third point at this level is an open error culture. As a member of an agile team the willingness to acknowledge mistakes very quickly and openly is important because otherwise you might make the work more difficult for all other team members. And for a previously established leader it can be quite difficult not to be the declared leader anymore but to be an equal member of the team. Therefore you renounce power and status.


Agile leadership on the team level

The most challenging part for the team in an agile setting is the communication. Constant coordination, exchange and communication among each other are crucial. This requires openness and extraversion of all the team members on the one hand and the right tools on the other hand. When agile methods are introduced to a team, it is worth investing in the communication structure and skills of all members, otherwise many difficulties could arise.

Constant communication – this is absolutely essential in an agile team

Constant communication – this is absolutely essential in an agile team


Agile leadership on the organization level

The entire organization must be ready for the establishment of agile structures, to soften hierarchies and to question the status quo. It is important as well to let the employees question the status quo repeatedly. We must remember that not everything that is right today, will be right tomorrow. For the management level of a large company this constant questioning combined with much flatter hierarchies can be of course presented as a loss of control, which is instinctively something to avoid. That is the reason why the introduction of agile methods is probably most challenging on the organization level. It takes a lot of openness and real commitment to move away from rigid rules and procedures in order to become really agile at this level.


The role of leadership and the leader in an agile world

Now, you could get the impression that leadership has become useless or counter-productive in this agile world. In fact, one strongly discussed question is whether and how far classical leadership is still meaningful in an agile setting. Personally, I believe that leadership will always be needed – and I am talking about leadership in the sense of controlling and setting framework conditions. However, there is one thing that is different in the agile world: leadership is no longer the job from one individual, but from several people. It is not important who sets the framework as long as one is set. This is necessary so that everyone knows how far he or she is allowed to go and what budget and resources there are available. Thus there is no elimination of the classical leadership but a change in the roll definition and allocation. Leadership is no longer the responsibility of one leader but of all team members. For this, individuals must be willing to hand over control to a group.


Conclusion: the right self-assessment as a requirement for agile leadership

The more familiar you are with the topic, the more you realize that agile leadership is not a tool-box or method you can simply introduce, but more a mindset that starts with oneself. The interaction of all participants with each other as well as the relation to their own tasks and the work in general are central. What drives us? How do we work together? How do we deal with each other? How much transparency do we allow? How much control are we willing to take?

Introducing agile methods only makes sense if the answers to all these question already show a glimpse of “agile thinking and if the people who are involved have the right self-assessment: as an individual, team and organization.

Guest author

This article was written by Alexandra Sock for our blog. She is currently living in Vienna and is a managing partner at MDI Management Development International, as well as a passionate trainer, consultant and coach with many years of experience. She is dealing with the topic of agile leadership for a long time already and has now designed an orientation workshop together with MDI. If you are interested in agile leadership you get some insights and targets of the workshop with Alexandra Sock in this video. You are also very welcome to contact her for further information.

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