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Let's Remove "Agile" from Agile Leadership

March 11, 2019

Agile leadership

What exactly is “Agile” or even an agile leader? This is one of the biggest problems our industry faces. Ask a room full of people to answer and you may get as many answers. Common ones include “it’s a mindset” or “it’s a software methodology” etc…

I think of this word “agile” as being synonymous with “nimble” or “flexible”. Just ask Google to define the word for you and see which answer comes first.

Taking the definition of agile above, then an agile organization is one that is nimble, flexible, and can respond quickly to change. Of course, that takes a non-rigid mindset and a certain courage to safely experiment. That might take certain tools and special ways of leading a team or company. But let’s start with the goal first and work our way back to how to achieve it. We don’t yet need to create another new term called “agile leadership” as if it’s something special.

To be agile is usually a choice in my humble opinion. That means you could choose to be agile, choose to be the opposite (rigid), or actively choose nothing at all. All of these options may work for you depending on your industry and competitive landscape. If you have a monopoly and your only customer gave you a 20-year irrevocable contract to print phone books, agile/nimble means little to you for about 20 years.

Are agile companies a new thing? Nope. While the word to describe a nimble and flexible company might be new, the ideas are really old. Empiricism, flexibility, high quality, customer focus, employee empowerment, all of these ideas go back as far as I can research. Even the ideas behind servant leadership are thousands of years old. Yes, that pre-dates Scrum and the Agile Manifesto.

Regarding leaders of fast-moving organizations: can hierarchy work? let’s use this example to find out. Think of an agile software product development team as a cutting-edge fighter plane and the enemy is another software competitor you’re trying to take out. Your CEO, the pilot, better know how to fly or you’re going to have a bad day. Flying a fighter jet takes very special skills, knowledge and experience. Your CEO pilot needs to take quick action, trust her instruments and warning lights, and not get too bogged down in micromanaging the subsystems… because you’re moving fast and there isn’t time.

In this last example, the development team is like the engine and all the sub-systems that keep that airplane from hitting the dirt wheel-side up. As a leader (fighter pilot) you have to empower and trust those systems (developers) that keep that plane (your company) moving (in business). Do your sub-systems need to be trustworthy for that CEO pilot to trust them? Absolutely and that’s another rant.

If you want a rapid moving organization that can quickly identify and manage risk, then it takes a qualified leadership team that spends their time leading while letting motivated, trustworthy people manage themselves. Visit Responsive Advisors for more information. We can help!

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