How Leadership Can Embrace Agile


In organizations who are well ahead on their agile journeys, a network of self-organized teams aligns and delivers toward a common set of vision, mission, and goals—which are set and supported by a servant-leadership team.

The leadership team lets go of traditional management practices and transforms into a body of servant-leaders who:

  • Set the vision, mission, and goals
  • Prioritize ruthlessly and protect their teams from distractions
  • Unblock the delivery of their teams through rapid decisions and trade-offs
  • Learn how to make capital allocation decisions to become better project sponsors

In the rest of this post, I’m going to share more about the notion of agile leadership. If you are an executive or senior manager in an organization that’s getting started on its agile journey, keep on reading.

We’re going to do a deep dive into the origins of the agile movement—and see that most of the answers that agile leaders are looking for come from the lean management studies that informed the founders of agile in the first place.

We’ll also look at the agile leadership insights from some of the best research papers and books on the topic. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Above all, how do you define agile leadership?

Agile leadership is a new mindset and approach to organizational leadership for 21st century companies. Agile leaders focus on setting the vision, mission, and goals for their organizations—letting go of the “What” and “How” and creating a network of agile teams that self-organize to get things done.

In a world where problems are complex and change is constant, no single person has all the answers. Which means that what worked as management approaches yesterday is no longer working today. The top-down, command-control style of the 20th century is no longer effective enough to steer organizations into the future.

History will occasionally introduce us to a genius leader like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk. But the reality that most leaders need to acknowledge is that the competitive advantage of their organizations depends less on them—and more on the agility and innovativeness of the people working for them. The challenge then becomes how to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In their 2020 book, Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos, authors Darrell K. Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez write about the fact that most agile leadership teams, inspired from the simplicity and power of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, tend to create “agile leadership manifestos” of their own. 

In their experience consulting some of the top companies in the world, these agile leadership manifestos tend to have a shared set of principles. Let’s see what these principles look like.

The agile leadership team:

  • Sets a clear ambition, vision, and metrics for success, and delegates the achievement to a network of agile teams;
  • Believes that the best answers come from empowered individuals and self-organized teams, which they commit to sponsoring and supporting;
  • Pushes for progress, not perfection, by accepting “good enough;” protects the teams from distraction, and unblocks them fast through strategic decisions and tactical trade-offs;
  • Encourages individuals and teams to seek out feedback from customers and insight from metrics early and often—cultivating a culture of rapid learning and adaptation to customer needs;
  • Celebrate learning and create a safe space for experimentation and failure. The highest-performing company cultures are ones where making mistakes is completely acceptable, but repeating them isn’t.

Agile leadership, in other words, is as much about supporting the individuals and teams within the agile organization as it is about learning how to not get in their way.

The agile movement started in 2001, when a group of 17 software development thought leaders got together on a ski retreat in the mountains of Snowbird, Utah, and got snowed in because of a blizzard. 

With little skiing to do, the group’s members gathered up in a conference room with a whiteboard—and started exchanging ideas and approaches about building software and working with customers instead.

In the course of the conversation, they found a striking number of similarities between them. “When we compared how we did our work, we were just kind of astonished at the things that were the same,” Ken Schwaber, co-founder of Scrum, recalls for The Atlantic

“I think at that point, we were all sort of seeking legitimacy, that we’d sort of been all out on our own doing similar things, but it hadn’t really taken off big-time in the community,” remembers Jim Highsmith, an executive consultant at ThoughtWorks, told Sr. Associate Editor Caroline Mimbs Nyce for the same story.

That night, the group’s members wrote these similarities down and created the 68-word Manifesto for Agile Software Development ( In the coming days, they finally went skiing and did some subsequent work on their manifesto, adding a longer section that’s now known as the 12 principles of agile.

To Understand Agile, Look at Its Origins in Lean Management

What many don’t know or forget about the agile movement is that it started among software developers, but these software developers were (and continue to be) some of the best technical leaders and consultants at the time. Each of them had done extensive research into the success of lean manufacturers and product companies in the 20th century—and had tried to apply many of the principles that made companies like Toyota and 3M successful to the field of software development.

One study that Jeff Sutherland, one of the 17 co-signers of the Agile Manifesto and the second co-creator of the Scrum framework, often refers to, is particularly relevant to the topic of agile leadership.

In 1986, Harvard Business Review published an article called “The New New Product Development Game,” in which Harvard professor of management Hirotaka Takeuchi and Japanese organizational theorist Ikujiro Nonaka had looked into some of the leading product companies at the time—identifying a novel and different approach to product development that helped each of them gain a competitive edge.

The companies that Takeuchi and Nonaka studied were 3M, Brother, Hewlett-Packard, Honda, Canon, and others. What made them stand apart from their competitors was their ability to compete on the market by innovating better and faster than the rest.

What approaches were the management teams of these companies using that made them so competitive? It turned out that the answer was in what their management teams didn’t do.

At the time, most product companies applied a linear and sequential approach to developing new products. Like the typical waterfall project, their product development projects were split in phases, implemented by specialized teams, with handovers from one team to another between each. This approach to fostering innovation turned out to be slow and ineffective. 

Oftentimes, companies would invest the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars on products that flopped the moment when they were brought to market. Part of the problem was that these products were built in silos, by experts completely disconnected from the real customers, who were often trying to solve problems that customers didn’t really have.

But a small number of companies like the ones that Takeuchi and Nonaka studied in the 1980s did things differently.

These companies formed cross-functional and self-organized teams, tasked them with complex customer problems sometimes bordering on the lines of the impossible, and gave them nearly complete freedom to find and build the solutions—with minimum interference, approval, or control by top management.

These teams, it turned out, took a different approach to product development. They didn’t work in a linear and sequential way. They had to decide quickly and act fast, which required them to break down the silos of expertise and responsibility between them. They worked in overlapping phases, communicating and collaborating throughout the whole time, as they built products and validated them with small groups of potential customers.

To one extent or another, Takeuchi and Nonaka’s study gave birth to the agile mindset as we know it today. It also contains many of the answers that agile leaders continue to look for today on how to embrace agile.

“Top management kicks off the development process by signaling a broad goal or a general strategic direction. It rarely hands out a clear-cut new product concept or a specific work plan,” the HBR article said. “Top management creates an element of tension in the project team by giving it great freedom to carry out a project of strategic importance to the company—and by setting challenging requirements.”

Management, Takeuchi and Nonaka wrote, exercised only what the two authors called “subtle control.”

“Management establishes checkpoints to prevent instability, ambiguity, and tension from turning into chaos. The emphasis is on subtle control, control through peer pressure, and control by love.”

According to the two Japanese researchers, this subtle control was exercised primarily in seven ways: 

  1. Selecting the right people for the project team while monitoring for changes to team dynamics and adding or dropping off people as necessary;
  2. Creating an open work environment that encouraged transparency and visibility;
  3. Encouraging individuals and teams to go out in the field and listen to what customers have to say about the problems they’re solving and products they’re building;
  4. Changing the rewards and incentives system to incentivize team, and not individual, achievements;
  5. Helping the teams build a sustainable pace by managing the differences in rhythm at various moments in the projects;
  6. Anticipating and tolerating mistakes;
  7. Encouraging the suppliers and vendors to be self-organizing.

More than three decades since “The New New Product Development” game was published in the January 1986 edition of Harvard Business Review, Takeuchi and Nonaka’s findings continue to be relevant and valuable to agile leaders today.

Since I read the study, I have become a fan and proponent of the notion of “subtle control.”

The 9 Principles of Agile Leadership

The Agile Business Consortium, a non-profit organization created to promote business agility, has identified 9 principles of agile leadership:

  1. Actions speak louder than words. Agile leaders should lead by example by adopting and applying the agile mindset in all they say and do.
  2. Improved quality of thinking leads to improved outcomes. Agile leaders use system thinking, an economic view, and empiric mindset to see problems from a variety of angles and take better-informed decisions.
  3. Organizations improve through effective feedback. Agile leaders seek out feedback, listen attentively, and proactively improve based on the lessons learned and insights gained.
  4. People require meaning and purpose to make work fulfilling. Agile leaders focus on creating a common vision, mission, and set of goals that drive progress in the organization by giving its people a sense of purpose.
  5. Emotion is a foundation to enhance creativity and innovation. Agile leaders inspire others to bring their best selves to work. Agility is about resilience and responsiveness, which in a day-to-day context requires a high degree of emotional intelligence.
  6. Leadership lives everywhere in the organization. Everyone can be a leader—and one of the jobs of an agile leader is to inspire and empower everyone else in the organization who wants to step up and take the lead; with formal credentials or not.
  7. Leaders devolve appropriate power and authority. Agile leaders understand that empowerment is not an ad-hoc, one-time activity. It is the sum of the attitude and behavior that an agile leader demonstrates on a daily basis.
  8. Collaborative communities achieve more than individuals. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In agile, the best ideas, designs, and implementations come from self-sufficient and self-organized agile teams.
  9. Great ideas can come from anywhere in the organization. Agile is about reversing the managerial pyramid and creating a feedback loop between all levels of the organization. Some of the best ideas can come from some of the most “unexpected” places and people.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Embrace Agile in Leadership

If you are an agile leader, how can you start to embrace agile today?

Start with the mindset. Agile has been called many things. I’ve seen it referenced as an approach, a methodology, a framework, even a software development life cycle. But, above all, agile is a mindset.

This mindset is based on the 4 values and 12 principles of the agile manifesto. It’s key to understand and internalize where it comes from, what it stands for, and how it relates to the level of organizational leadership.

One really good example is the one that I shared earlier in this post; the agile leadership manifesto that the authors of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos have often seen leadership teams create as they steer their companies toward agile transformations.

Get educated/trained in agility. One of the biggest mistakes that leadership teams make when leading an agile transformation is to not train themselves on agility.

There are many ways to get started. And while executes and senior managers have access to some of the world’s best Agile Coaches, I recommend to get started on a simpler and more standardized path.

Scrum Alliance, one of the leading training organizations for agile and Scrum practitioners worldwide, offers an excellent training and certification track for agile leaders. The Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) credential helps leaders like you to stay on top of rapidly changing business needs and learn how to adapt and respond in an agile way to change and disruption.

Create your agile leadership manifesto. Agile leaders embody the agile mindset and role model an agile approach to work in all of their interactions and decisions.

The agile manifesto is purposefully short and most agile frameworks are intentionally incomplete. This is because there is no silver bullet for becoming agile. Instead, individuals, teams, and organizations should come to their own ways that work for their aspirations and contexts.

When it comes to agile leadership, consistency is key. Which is why it’s so important to have a consistent set of attitudes and behaviors on your own, connected to the vision, mission, goals, and culture of your organization. Identify how agility relates to how you act and what you do—and determine the specific ways in which you will practice agile leadership on a daily basis.

Apply the manifesto in your day-to-day interactions. Your team will look to you for setting the example. The most effective way to spread agility across the organization is to think, act, and decide in an agile way yourself.

In thinking, remember the principles of empiricism, which the agile mindset is based on. Empiricism is a philosophical school of thought that started along with the rise of experimental science in the 17th and 18th century. Empiricists believe that the best (and only) way to acquire knowledge is through “sensory experience.” In simple terms, you can only tell whether a plan is going to work or not by setting out to implement it.

The challenge of agility, then, becomes to be clear and explicit in your vision, mission, and goals—while keeping the plans flexible. This can be tricky to achieve at the scale of an entire organization, especially in those organizations that are only getting started on their agile journey.

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.