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Leadership Styles

Complex Problems Require an Agile Leadership Style

The ways that leaders present themselves and interact with their colleagues can either support agility, or defeat it. In this article, we describe the difference between leaders and managers (which are often confused), identify a few well-known leadership styles and present the characteristics of an agile leadership style, one that enables empiricism and self-management to thrive.

The Difference Between Leaders and Managers

The terms “leader” and “manager” are often used interchangeably, yet they are very different concepts. Understanding the difference is key to understanding the role of leaders and managers in agile organizations.

Managers and Management - As simple as it sounds, managers “manage.” They concern themselves with the day-to-day operations of the business. Managers generally oversee people, processes or tasks, making certain that work is on-track. Management is generally an organizational role that comes with a level of authority. Teams are often compelled to follow the direction of their managers simply because of this organizational authority. 

Leaders and Leadership - Similarly, leaders “lead.” Leaders present compelling visions for the future and seek to inspire people and teams to achieve their common goals. Leaders paint a captivating picture and teams follow them not because they hold authority over them, but because they believe in the vision and trust the leader. Some of history’s famous leaders are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Some leaders are managers, but not all managers are leaders.

Managers and leaders in Scrum - While there are often managers in organizations, there is no such construct in Scrum. On the other hand, there can be many leaders on a Scrum Team. For example, the Scrum Master acts as a leader in the Scrum domain, influencing the team to improve their effectiveness by using Scrum. The Product Owners are product leaders, creating an enthralling vision of the product and influencing the team to manifest its value. Similarly, any Developer on the team can also be a leader by using their expertise to drive innovation and deliver value.

What are Leadership Styles?

A leader’s style is the way they present themselves. It includes their demeanor and the methods they use for influencing others. 

There have been countless models of leadership and leadership styles proposed by business schools, organizational psychologists and various authors.  Some include: 

  • Autocratic, Democratic, Laissez-faire or Transactional leadership  
  • Compliant, Combative, Competitive or Catalytic leadership1
  • Servant leadership2
  • And others…

As agilists, we tend to work on complex problems (where more is unknown than is known). Complex problems require a leadership style that we refer to as “agile leadership.” 


1 Described in “The Professional Agile Leader” by Eringa, Bittner and Bonnema
This term originates from an essay written by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970

An Agile Leadership Style

Given the tight connection between agility, complex problems and our focus on Scrum, it makes sense to talk about the traits of agile leaders in Scrum terms.

Those that use an agile leadership style create an environment where empiricism and self-management can flourish. 

For example, agile leaders:

  • Act with great humility. They recognize that complex problems have no obvious solutions so there is no need to show they have all the answers.
  • Create the conditions that support strong, empowered self-managing teams: 
    • Help the teams set meaningful goals and help them inspect their progress toward them
    • Make certain that the boundaries and accountabilities are clear and well-understood. If they are managers, agile leaders delegate much of their decision-making authority to the teams
  • Foster empiricism by encouraging experimentation. Experimentation centers around creating hypotheses and then seeking to either confirm or disprove the hypothesis. When a hypothesis is disproved, agile leaders recognize that this is not the experiment failing, but rather a successful learning process.
  • Keep the team’s focus on the value and customer outcomes that the team is creating, rather than managing the team’s output and activities.
  • Creates an environment of trust and transparency by modeling and reinforcing the Scrum Values.
  • Use techniques such as coaching, teaching, mentoring and facilitation to build high performing teams. They do not command or direct the teams to achieve a goal.
  • Help teams transition to agility by letting go of old ways of working:
    • Agile leaders transform themselves first. They adopt an agile mindset and an agile leadership style.
    • Agile leaders focus on value instead of tasks, actions and velocity. So instead of using dashboards and metrics that don’t support agility, agile leaders use Evidence-Based Management (EBM) which focuses on four Key Value Areas (current value, unrealized value, ability to innovate and time to market).
    • Agile leaders continually look for ways to shift reward structures and promotions away from emphasis on individual accomplishments to the value that the team creates.

A Word about “Servant Leadership”

Previous versions of the Scrum Guide used the term “servant leader” to describe the style of leadership that Scrum Masters should use. In the 2020 revision, the term “servant leader” was removed, instead putting more emphasis on leadership in general. This wasn’t done to discourage Scrum Masters from being servant leaders, but rather to remove the potential misinterpretation that Scrum Masters are servants first and leaders second. Understanding the idea of servant leadership is still valuable when using Scrum.

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