The Importance of (TRUE) Leadership in Agile
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The Importance of (TRUE) Leadership in Agile

Bob Galen, Principal Agile Coach, Vaco & President, RGCG, LLC.
Bob Galen, Principal Agile Coach, Vaco & President, RGCG, LLC.

Bob Galen, Principal Agile Coach, Vaco & President, RGCG, LLC.

I attended an agile leadership class the other day and the instructor focused agile leadership totally on the following three classes of service:

• Providing vision
• Handling impediments
• Supporting the team

While I can’t disagree with these three important activities, this is the sort of narrow treatment focus (trivialized, compartmentalized, and marginalized) that I hear of leadership all the time in the agile community. It flies in the face of my experience and I’d like to share that reality here.

The reality

The truth is that effective leadership agility encompasses:

• Cultural transformation;
• Business agility;
• DevOps;
• Scaled agility;
• And Lean Thinking;

However, you want to categorize it, requires broad and deep leadership skills to make the efforts effective and resilient. I think my key point is that you can’t get to Business Agility without effective agile leadership.

It just doesn’t happen.

But that being said, the leadership I’m talking about is different than in traditional contexts or the way the instructor categorized it. And it depends less on command-and-control platitudes and much more on effective modern leadership. I’d like to explore a few critical aspects of what that type of leadership, Agile Leadership, looks like by sharing 5 critical focus factors…


One of the key factors that Simon Sinek often shares is leadership providing the WHY behind their goals. Why are we doing what we’re being asked to do is one of the fundamental responsibilities of leaders to be able to articulate.

 Trust me, agile “done well” is an incredibly powerful organizational force. For your customers, for your teams, and for you  

And not just any old why. But a compelling why. A motivational why. A why that’s aligned with the principles and culture of the organization they’re leading. And this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Often the leader needs to “dig deeper” to realize their own compelling why before the begin to share about an organizational why. They’ll need to “connect the dots” from that personal view to the organizational view. And they need to share it continuously so that it gets into the DNA of their organization.

Goals & Outcomes

A significant part of the why is defining our goals, measures, and expected outcomes& impacts. With a special emphasis on outcomes & impacts.

Leaders need to provide a compelling vision for their teams of where they want them to go. But vision is not enough. They also need to provide a compelling set of outcomes that they expect to achieve. Helping their teams visualize what a successful outcome looks like and what the impact to their customers is. The books Radical Focus and The 4 Disciplines of Execution do a great job of helping leaders clarify their focus on goals, outcomes, and impacts.

And with today’s teams it can’t simply be about revenue. It must be multi-faceted focusing on revenue, value to customer, eco-impact, and overall cultural impact. Showing the teams how they contribute to the greater good as well as the bottom line.

Communication via Story-Telling

One of my favorite communicators is Steve Jobs. I know, he’s not the perfect role model. However, he does set the bar high for effective storytelling and communication. One of my favorite videos of him is his Stanford University commencement speech.

If you review it you’ll be able to pick up a myriad of tips on how to tell a good story. My particular favorites are his self-effacing humor, his vulnerability, and his ability to paint a picture by connecting the dots.

Effective agile leaders become great story tellers. And not just in large group settings. But in their teams, in the hallways, and in the parking lot. Storytelling is everywhere and you become a role model for effectiveness. You know you’re doing a great job of storytelling when everyone starts telling their (and your) stories.

Safety and Responsibility

Google’s Project Aristotle is a relatively well-known internal project where they studied the factors that impacted the effectiveness of their teams and working groups. They discovered 5 key factors, in priority order they were:

1. Psychological safety
2. Dependability
3. Structure and clarity
4. Meaning
5. Impact

The definition of Psychological Safety was – team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

As an agile leader, you set the tone for your culture. You can encourage safety, by an ecosystem where it is safe to disagree. Safe to have alternative ideas. And safe to suggest wildly creative ideas.

And this then extends to the notion that teams become more responsible for their results. They have more “skin in the game” and take more personal ownership. Which is one of the building blocks for the productivity of agile teams.

Walking Your Talk

I teach a leadership workshop and one of the key messages I share with attendees is that agile knowledge doesn’t matter for the leader. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read. Or how many certification classes you’ve attended. Your agile knowledge isn’t really the point.

The key thing that illustrates your agility as a leader is your behavior. Are you acting on the principles you’ve learned? Not only when the going is easy, but particularly when the going is tough?

If you say that you want increased risk-taking in your organization, one of the things you’ll have to handle is failure. Agilists often talk a good game about fail-fast strategies. But those are just words. It’s how you react to failure that will set the organizational culture. Do you honestly view it as a learning opportunity or do you penalize failure?

Wrapping Up

If you focus on the five areas I’ve highlighted as an agile leader, you’ll be going a long way to creating the organizational ecosystem that you want.

Trust me, agile “done well” is an incredibly powerful organizational force. For your customers, for your teams, and for you.

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