Agile Leadership

2021 08 01 head

Everybody is talking about being agile.

Companies institutionalize agile change programs and send all their collaborators in training to learn the agile way.

What does that mean?

How should I as a manager work the agile way?

Does this agile way exist, or is it simply a fad created by the consulting industry?

This article provides some pointers and hypotheses what agile leadership could be.

Feel free to experiment and refine your successful approach to be agile as an organization. You must experiment, learn and train to become a successful agile leader [1, 2]. It is a job, not a hobby.

Organizational agility cannot exceed the level of personal leadership agility of those with the most influence in an organization.

Because agile leadership involves ongoing personal development, it is not something that can be mastered in a single training course.

Agile Leaders engage, and serve the team at the place of work

Serving the team is all the rage these days. You hear or read about Servant Leadership at every turn. But serving the team is too often interpreted as waiting for the team to ask for help.

Rather than wait for the team, go to the Gemba — the actual place of work.

  • Get out of your office and engage with the team.

  • Help them as they deliver.

  • See their problems first hand.

  • You will know exactly what they are working on.

  • It will become obvious how you can help.

You start helping and playing the part only you as a leader can fill. This is a true service to the team by being a contributing member of the team.

Growing your team is critical

By engaging shoulder to shoulder with your teams, you can help them grow. As a leader, you can teach them how to navigate complexity.

You must engender an ability in your team members to think using the scientific method. It is impossible to teach every possible scenario your teams will encounter. Teach them how to probe, sense, and respond. This will give them critical abilities to solve complex problems on their own.

It builds self-organizing skills in your teams. Scrum framework provides hints what the minimal expected behaviors you should expect. There are several references to self-management in the Scrum as in the current version of 2020.

Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing.

Scrum Teams are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.

They are structured and empowered by the organization to manage their own work.

The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team in several ways, including coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality.

Sprint Planning: How will the chosen work get done? How this is done is at the sole discretion of the Developers. No one else tells them how to turn Product Backlog items into Increments of value.

The Developers can select whatever structure and techniques they want, as long as their Daily Scrum focuses on progress toward the Sprint Goal and produces an actionable plan for the next day of work. This creates focus and improves self-management.

The Sprint Backlog is a plan by and for the Developers.


You can use various indicators to detect the self-management requirement at the Scrum team level is no more than lip service:

  • You assign specific tasks directly to Developers, thus bypassing the Product Owner.

  • Alternatively, you remove a Developer from the Scrum team (temporarily) to work on such a task.

  • Developers are assigned to support other organization members while ignoring their commitment to achieving the Sprint Goal. Examples are supporting sales in a pitch, or being an expert in management meetings.

  • Scrum is rolled back in a moment of crisis to a traditional form of command & control, exercised, for example, by dispatching jobs directly to individual Developers.

Ignoring self-management does not only violate Scrum’s first principles. It also indicates that a manager cannot let go of command and control practices. They continue to micromanage subordinates, although a Scrum team could accomplish the task themselves. This behavior demonstrates a level of ignorance that may require support from a higher management level to address.

Leading by Example to nurture resilient change

  • Co-select with the teams proficient and experienced agile coaches and Scrum masters

  • Promote purpose, autonomy, mastery, accountability, strong social connection, small wins

  • Put emphasis on Information Radiators

Think about

  • Collocation,

  • Radical transparency,

  • Job rotations,

  • Team liaisons,

  • Community of practices,

  • Servant leader.

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

— Peter Drucker

You should

  • Be knowledgeable about agile values, approaches and practices Understand and apply the Scrum, Kanban and lean, Spotify model frameworks.

  • Develop people and teams with self-organizing teams Leadership styles, coaching and mentoring, and facilitation.

  • Manage products with agility.

  • Forecast and perform release planing based on product value and business strategy.

  • Develop and deliver products professionally.

  • Evolve the agile organization through organizational design and structure, and evidence based management.

  • Take a collaborative continuous improvement approach to organizational effectiveness.

You should avoid hindering value stream organizations and cross-functional teams by

  • Defining component teams.

  • Give tasks to individual collaborators instead of going through the product owner.

  • Ask progress or control questions during daily Scrum.

  • Ask control questions or systematically participate to.

  • Promote the mindset that people are exchangeable - see mythical man month [3].

  • State anybody can be a good Scrum master.

  • Criticize craftsmanship approaches such as TDD, DDD, pair programming, continuous integration and delivery.

Exceptional agile leaders

  • Are trained in agile values and approaches.

  • They hold certifications.

  • Advocate technical excellence.

  • Trust their teams.

  • Work actively to remove impediments by supporting the process and structural changes in value streams.


First Rule of Leadership

Put your mission above your ego.

Second Rule of Leadership

If you do not care about your people, they will not care about your mission.

Third Rule of Leadership

If someone has to tell you the first two rules, you are not ready to lead yet.

— Adam Grant

Please look at the agile leadership program from Scrum Alliance and

Beware of the Agile Fluency Model. Be patient. Change takes time, a lot of time.


[1] Z. Sochova, The Great Scrum Master. Addison Wesley, 2016 [Online]. Available:

[2] G. Verheyen, Scrum - A Pocket Guide, Third. Van Haren Publishing, 2021 [Online]. Available:

[3] F. P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month. Addison-Wesley Professional, 1995 [Online]. Available: