According to experts in the leadership and management field, agile leadership is really about applying the principles of agility to your management style to create an environment that is suited for agile teamwork and to help to shape an agile organisation.
The concept of agile leadership isn’t a new one. The agile workstyle stems from the software industry and is a term used to describe a team-based approach to projects characterised as experimentation, iterative problem solving, and the step-by-step delivery of results.
Originally conceptualised in 2001, agile has become an increasingly popular project management style across most departments due to its efficacy when facing complexity, change, and goals that are constantly shifting.
The opposite of agile leadership is traditional management. Traditional leadership looks to address the needs of a business with an emphasis on stability, planning, and control. However, in recent years, it has come to light that a traditional approach to leadership is not relevant to the nature of businesses today. Instead, agile leadership is designed to meet the demands of 21st-century businesses that are designed to thrive in dynamic, unpredictable, and fast-moving environments.
With all this said, the question becomes: how does one become an agile leader?
The principles of agile leadership
To become an agile leader, you would need to understand the principles of agile leadership. There are essentially nine principles that are continuously evolving. They can give you an indication as to the type of leadership that is required to be an agile leader.
- Being the change: With agile leadership, simply driving change is not enough, you need to be the change yourself. This can be summarised as: actions speak louder than words. Telling someone they need to change is a lot easier than demonstrating change within yourself as a leader.
- High-quality thinking: Agile leadership entails looking at complex problems from every possible angle while getting input from those closest to the problem. It is using high quality-thinking to drive meaningful action.
- Effective feedback: Giving and receiving feedback can be viewed as a negative experience. In terms of agile leadership, it’s about courageously encouraging insightful, meaningful, and timely feedback within an organisation.
- A vision of change: Agile leadership includes identifying the need for colleagues to find meaning and purpose in all that they do to make their work fulfilling. Leaders are tasked with understanding what employees value and aligning these with inspired action.
- Encouraging emotion: Another aspect of agile leadership is understanding that emotion is a part of the human experience and that, often, when people work with their emotions, they achieve more.
- Inspiring leadership: This form of leadership is not just about one leader being agile, it’s about having the concept pervade an organisation, realising the leadership potential in all its people.
- Collaboration: The concept of agile leadership relies largely on collaboration. Agile leaders build communities where collaboration is not only needed but is fundamental to the functioning of an organisation.
- Ideas: Following on from collaboration, agile leadership is about being open to others’ ideas, input, and feedback when it comes to dealing with a complex issue. It’s also about promoting creative and innovative problem-solving.
The key traits of an agile leader
It takes a lot to be a good leader. But it takes a very specific set of traits to be an agile leader. Based on the principles above, we can deduce what the key traits of an agile leader would be. Keep in mind, however, that all leaders are different – your key traits will most likely differ from another manager in your organisation. However, there are certain capabilities that speak directly to being an agile leader.
- Communication: Agile leaders work on creating an environment and culture that encourages open, upward communication and constructive feedback.
- Culture: They focus on driving a culture of continuous improvement as well as encouraging employees to let go of approaches that are no longer working.
- Growth mindset: They help plant the seeds for continuous learning throughout their organisation.
- They are proactive and flexible: Agile leaders have an open and flexible response to changing demands. They’re able to anticipate change, develop plans to tackle change, and re-work the plan as the goalposts shift.
- Creativity and innovation: They give themselves and the employees they lead the agency and freedom to come up with ideas, experiment, and make mistakes. Agile leaders also work to inspire creativity and innovation, particularly when proactively dealing with complex problems.
- Vision: Agile leaders actively drive collaboration and a shared vision for the organisation.
The kind of agility leaders need to be effective
Now that we’ve noted what the key traits of an agile leader are, we can further break this concept down into the aspects of leadership that need to remain agile for this style to be effectively incorporated into an organisation.
Agile leaders need:
- Change agility: The speed and flexibility agile leaders can use to handle change and failure.
- Mental agility: This relates to creativity and innovation as well as handling complex information.
- People agility: The ability to collaborate effectively with others and build a shared vision.
- Results agility: This refers to how quickly leaders can address issues as well as focusing on continuous improvement.
- Self-awareness: This is a developed skill that relates to having a growth mindset and being committed to continuous learning.
The concept of agile leadership is constantly shifting and evolving, much like the organisations where it is implemented. However, the nine main principles of agile leadership remain relatively the same throughout.
To be an effective driver of agile leadership in your organisation, you need to be committed to regularly revisiting these principles and iterating where they can be used to better your team, your business, and your results.