How much of an impact does a great Agile leader have and why?

How much of an impact does a great Agile leader have and why?

I think it’s important to start by defining what an agile leader is. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an agile leader, but I do believe there is agility in leadership environments.

What we want to see in a leader is an individual who understands what is required for people to thrive in the 21st century economy. Someone that understands the challenges of complexity, and the need to shift from 20th century style, command-and-control management to a leadership style more suited to navigating complexity and uncertainty.

Someone who recognizes that the common management practices we see today, stem from the early 20th century, and are not best suited to knowledge work in an information age.

Someone that recognizes that the type of work we are doing has changed, and that the workforce have also changed.

We are no longer doing manual labour. We don’t need someone to pull a lever every 5 minutes or push a wheelbarrow up the road. We need people who can solve complex problems and develop complex solutions.

  • Knowledge workers versus manual labourers.
  • Following a proven formula versus navigating uncertainty and complexity.
  • Micromanagement versus collaboration.
  • Innovation versus execution.

So, to answer the question, someone who demonstrates the characteristics and traits of an agile leader can have a significant impact on a team’s performance when compared to a traditional supervisor.

Changing mindsets

Traditionally, certain traits and characteristics have been rewarded.

  • Obedience.
  • Diligence.
  • Compliance.

The organization have identified the best way of building a widget and how to deliver that widget from the manufacturing plant to the market.

They want it done THAT way, repeatedly.

They don’t want people to challenge the method, nor do they want anyone to fix something that isn’t broken. They just want you to do as you are told. They just want you to do the thing as you have been shown.

Do that, over and over, and do it better than others, and you’re going to get promoted.

If you grow a group of individuals who follow your instructions to the letter and push out more work than other groups of people, then you are going to get promoted even further up the corporate ladder.

So, when you talk to people who are well into their forties and fifties, people who have been promoted several times, they don’t see the need for change.

If drinking the kool-aid and doing what you are told led to this kind of success, why should it be any different in the future? Why would we need to change given that the organization is successful?


It is only when you ask that person to describe the kind of work they did at the start of their career. To describe the environment they worked in and the economy they served, that the penny starts to drop.

Some of them didn’t even use a computer when they started their careers. Many didn’t have a mobile phone until they were in their thirties.

  • Technology has evolved.
  • Markets have evolved.
  • Customers have evolved.
  • The workforce has evolved.
  • Products have evolved.

Everything has changed, and yet in their environment, they expect everything to stay the same.

So, context goes a long way in helping people adapt their thinking and lines of reasoning.

If you started your career delivering mail to different departments, and the young person who starts today is working on the IT infrastructure that delivers electronic mail and a host of information services and capabilities, you’re not doing the same work, nor did you start in the same place.

You can’t manage that person the way your boss managed you.

Leadership versus management

Sure, there are evergreen concepts such as mentorship and coaching, that were important back then and are equally important today.

A great leader recognizes which elements of the past are still relevant and valuable today, and seeks to combine those with a more agility-based style of leadership that seeks to enable and empower others rather than command or control them.

Someone who understands that back in the day, they got promoted because they understood the work better than anyone else, and yet today, they are leading individuals who are experts in their field and know significantly more about the work than they do.

Pep Guardiola is not one of the most successful football managers of his generation because he is the best footballer on the field, he is a master of preparation, strategy, and leadership of a group of individuals who are ALL significantly better football players than he is or ever was.

A manager is like the little league coach who knows the rules better than the players, plays the game better than the players, and attempts to teach them how to play the game as well as he or she does.

So, in a simple environment where the work is repeatable and you simply need to practise more than others to be the best, management works fine. It serves you to have the most experienced practitioner at the top of the food chain and the least experienced at the bottom of the food chain.

Leadership, and Agile Leadership by extension, is more about being Pep Guardiola than the little league coach. More about leadership and strategy and innovation than it is about execution.

Leadership is more about developing creative, collaborative, and cross-functional teams than it is about getting each person on the team to pull the lever at the set time.

Leading product development teams

The biggest shift in leading knowledge workers is that of productivity and output, to effectiveness and work flow.

In manual labour, you can see how many bricks still need to be transported, how many are currently being transported, and how many have already been transported.

In knowledge work, someone could be thinking incredibly creatively about the solution they are developing or they could be thinking about what to make for dinner tonight.

You can’t see the work being done, and you can’t tell how close they are to a breakthrough, and so you can’t manage that knowledge work in the same way you managed manual work.

There are tools, such as Kanban, which make knowledge work visible, but ultimately you don’t know whether someone is going to take an hour to solve a problem or a month to solve that problem. You don’t know if the problem is even solvable given the technology and other variables at play.

So, we can’t think in terms of # of ideas generated per hour, # of solutions delivered per week, or any other output related metrics. There is no formula to follow, and there is no way to predict how effectively teams are able to solve complex problems or build complex solutions.

It requires a very different style of leadership, and a leadership commitment to creating environments where people thrive rather than simply supplying the necessary tools.

A great agile leader will focus on:

  • Developing empathy.
  • Creating psychological safety.
  • Fostering innovation and experimentation.
  • Encouraging collaboration.
  • Removing impediments or organizational constraints that don’t support agility.

And so forth.

It isn’t so much leaning into the wheelbarrow, from time to time, to make things go faster but rather a focus on the environment, on the people within that environment, and the customers that trust the organization to solve their problems and create solutions that meet their requirements.

This is why Agile places such an emphasis on people and interactions OVER processes and tools.

A great agile leader can have a significant impact on a team’s performance whilst a poor manager can make product development a deeply frustrating and painful experience.

About John McFadyen

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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