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Why you need Agile Leaders for Agile Teams

Scott Heyhoe and Matthias Frye
5 min read
Employee Experience
Why you need Agile Leaders for Agile Teams

Like all things leadership styles evolve over time. Modern leadership takes many forms, but one common trend sees leaders moving away from centralized, hierarchical, command and control structures to agile team-based organizations. Let’s take a quick look at some familiar names in the business world and their leadership styles to illustrate what we mean:


  1. Jeff Bezos, Amazon: Promoting an agile culture with small independent teams to foster agile development.
  2. Paul Polman, Unilever: Moving beyond selling products to making the consumer products giant purpose-driven in all its activities.
  3. Mary Barras, General Motors: Changing the culture of the leading automaker, making it faster and more responsive, ready for a future of electric vehicles and mobility services.
  4. Richard Branson, Virgin: Building teams in a wide range of businesses and empowering them to make decisions without his oversight.


Empowerment is the common thread that runs through each of these styles. These CEOs demonstrate that, to be successful in an era of agile teams, you need to empower your people managers at all levels within the business turning them into agile leaders in the process.


What is an Agile Leader?

In agile teams, managers and employees are empowered and given the ability to make decisions without constant escalation. So, as a leader you could be forgiven for wondering – what’s left for me to do? The answer is that you need to reinvent yourself and adopt a completely different role. Thinking of it structurally, it means moving away from being at the top of a pyramid of people to putting yourself in the middle of a circle, surrounded by your team. Your job is to ensure that everyone has the resources, direction and motivation to be able to perform at their best.


Much has been written about agile leadership, with the Agile Business Consortium outlining nine principles that drive success. We’d boil it down to three key areas:


1. Leadership at all levels

Leaders in all parts of the business form the culture of the company and of teams driving (or impeding) agility and performance. Senior management in particular needs to lead by example, defining what agility means and supporting agile teams and managers. Company culture must champion agility, both by providing managers with the resources and decision making power they need, ensuring that innovation and problem solving are encouraged. Mistakes should be seen as part of development, rather than something to be blamed for. Indeed, encouraging an atmosphere of openness and trust within the team is one sure fire way to surface more ideas, more improvements and more motivation. You need a level of agility in all teams, and in all functions, and that means ensuring all agile leaders understand what is expected of them and that their role is to lead, not just to manage.


 2. Understanding the changing role of the leader

Asking leaders to change what they do can be difficult. After all, many have been in their role for 20 years or more and have achieved a great deal of success during that time. But the modern business landscape demands change. Before, the role of a leader was prioritizing and organizing work and setting up processes for their team. They were the font of all knowledge and consequently were expected to make every decision. The structure they operated in meant that they had control – and for employees, that power could breed fear and negative emotions, which impacted their performance and development. Things are now more devolved in terms of knowledge, which resides in different individuals in the team, meaning that decision-making has to be similarly structured.


Agile leaders therefore should:

  • Focus on different leadership traits, such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness and humility, rather than relying on command and control.
  • Be a positive leader – inspire and communicate the corporate vision and culture and set big picture goals for the team.
  • Provide long term and short term coaching. That means not jumping in and taking over when someone is struggling, but instead supporting them and working collectively to help them learn and develop. Agile teams need support around them to thrive – and that must come from the leader.


An article in Harvard Business Review sums this up under the heading of “humble leadership.” Essentially it sees the job of the leader as being to help and encourage their team, showing respect for them, and continually asking the question “How can I help you do your job better?” As the article puts it, “You are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees.”


 3. Gaining trust

Agile leadership involves creating a positive environment that empowers your team, creates a common understanding and purpose and ensures psychological safety to encourage innovation. The old model of the leader issuing commands and employees listening without giving feedback is out of date. Consider the mantra of the late Steve Jobs, “We hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do. Be transparent and honest and look to continually improve yourself, such as by regular 360 degree feedback initiatives, and help the team to grow through continuous listening.


Essentially you need to “learn to listen, listen to learn”. Actively listen to your people in order to bring them with you on your team’s journey. Learn from your mistakes, and those of others in a positive way – remember that making mistakes is a natural part of development. Also, don’t forget to look at what worked – how can you do more of that? According to Bersin leaders at successful organizations, “Actively seek feedback and want to hear the unvarnished truth.” This is essential to gaining trust and developing your team.


Change to drive success

For businesses built on agile teams to thrive, they need agile leaders. This requires a change of mindset and culture, making the work environment much more open and transparent, at both an organization and team level. Our recent webinar on Agile Leaders shares our experiences and how you can ensure your leaders are agile and feedback-driven.


Got a better example?

We’ve named some of our top agile leaders in this blog but, we’d love your feedback on who you see as champions that we can all learn from. Tell us your nominations through this lightning-quick survey* and we’ll be excited to report back in the not too distant future.


*This is an anonymous survey and no personal contact data will be captured. All responses will be deleted within 6 months.





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