Agile Leadership: 11 Principles and How To Develop It

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Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray


Agile leadership, or a style of leadership featured in project management, can help organizations in any industry improve workflows, spark innovation, and develop leaders.

Agile leadership: a man stares into a telescope.

In the software industry, agile project management directs the majority of product development. Developers remain adaptable to product changes, use flexible schedules, and collaborate frequently.

Table of contents:

What Is Agile Leadership?

Agile leadership is a form of management that values adaptability and flexibility. Agile leaders empower their organization to adjust to unexpected changes, such as market conditions, emerging technologies, and more.

Leaders achieve this by creating a series of smaller goals that eventually lead to a larger end goal, ensuring teams can adjust these shorter objectives on the fly.

Agile leadership emerged from Agile product management, a process many software developers use to build products in uncertain and dynamic environments. Agile leadership offers a number of benefits to entrepreneurs, including:

Self-motivated employees: 6 in 10 employees rank flexibility as more important than salary. Agile leadership empowers employees to work more independently.

Optimized workflows: By focusing on smaller goals, agile teams can adjust objectives as needed to better optimize workflows.

Continuous learning: Workers on agile teams engage in learning on an ongoing basis. They strive to figure out innovative ways to respond to change.

Frequent communication: Agile leadership necessitates transparency. Leaders need to communicate regularly with their employees, especially because agile teams target short-term goals.

Agile Leadership Principles

1. Collaborate frequently

Members of agile teams must collaborate with others frequently. A greater number of goals with shorter timelines means getting stakeholders aligned more quickly. And when changes come, teams must come together to shift and set new priorities.

Teams might meet up with different departments more often than non-agile organizations, or expect last-minute meetings to pop up in times of change.

2. Get comfortable with experimentation and failure

Agile leadership shirks the status quo in favor of adapting to new processes. This requires testing out innovative strategies, measuring their effectiveness, and improving on weaknesses. Agile teams must learn to get comfortable with experimentation and failure.

In an agile organization, workers focus on experimentation in their day-to-day tasks. This might mean regular meetings to present successful experiments, or brainstorming on solutions with a team.

3. Provide feedback regularly

In less dynamic workplace environments, workers can expect a few performance reviews per year. In an agile organization, however, feedback occurs almost daily.

As teams achieve small objectives, their managers provide feedback before moving on to the next project. Agile leadership centers around optimizing workflows, making regular feedback necessary. Managers might host weekly or more frequent one-on-ones to cover what their direct reports could improve upon.

4. Make work purposeful

Research shows that attaching purpose to work increases employee retention and engagement. An agile workplace, with its constant changes, requires a purpose or mission to motivate employees.

If an agile company works in a specific industry, leadership might embed purpose into their organization by spotlighting customers.

In other words, how does adaptability better serve their customers and, in turn, improve their lives? An agile organization’s purpose will, in some capacity, justify its preference for agile leadership.

5. Lead by example

As the name suggests, agile leadership starts from the top. Employees will feel unmotivated if their managers fail to demonstrate adaptability and dynamism. Leaders at all levels must act with agile leadership principles in mind.

Managers might demonstrate agility by highlighting their own experiments to their teams. They could walk through their successes and failures, and what their direct reports can take away from their experience.

6. Keep doors open

Rigid hierarchy can stifle creativity and communication. Because agile leadership values collaboration and ideation, these organizations need leaders to keep doors open. Every worker should feel accessible in some capacity, whether that means a department head providing feedback on an idea or an executive participating in a brainstorming session.

7. Communicate organizational goals

Since organizational goals tend to err on the short term in an agile environment, leaders need to communicate them clearly. Their employees cannot expect to achieve a large number of goals in a short period of time without frequent updates.

Therefore, leaders need to adapt to communicating more efficiently and regularly.

In an agile workplace, for example, employees might receive a greater number of messages from department heads and executives about upcoming changes.

8. Consider alternative solutions

Agile leadership does not mean finding one solution and sticking to it. Instead, an agile workforce thinks of several possible answers to a single problem to find the most effective answer.

An agile manager might exhibit this principle by asking follow-up questions to ideas rather than accepting them as the correct route. If a worker offers an idea, for example, they might ask:

  • What if we did this instead of that?
  • How does this idea stack up to other ideas?
  • What would happen if x occurred?

9. Empower others to lead

In an agile organization, every employee takes on a leadership role. They often tackle specific aspects of a project, owning it while collaborating alongside other stakeholders. Therefore, leaders in title (e.g., executives, heads of departments, managers) must empower others to take initiative in the organization.

Agile managers make time for their direct reports to take on leading roles in projects, no matter how small. This might mean taking the lead on writing an experimentation document or presenting in front of a group of peers.

10. Incorporate key performance indicators (KPIs)

Because of the unstructured nature of agile environments, KPIs can keep teams focused. Rather than using intuition or conjecture, teams can better measure what works and what doesn’t.

For example, a manager might break down different parts of a project and measure the percentage completed for each employee.

11. Prioritize teams over individuals

Research demonstrates that working in teams increases productivity over working individually. Plus, individual creativity gets heightened when combined with teamwork. While organizations should reward individual performance, they must also take care of their teams.

As an example, an agile leader might integrate incentives for both individuals and teams, such as perks, money, or prizes for meeting team goals.

Examples of Agile Leadership

While agile leadership appears most often in the tech industry, companies in any sector can adopt it.

For example, consider a marketing agency. To remain agile, the leadership meets once a week to discuss ways to improve trends research, spotlighting A/B tests in client work and offering takeaways for other marketers.

Since the organization uses agile leadership, they remain adaptable to industry changes and ensure efficient operations.

A pharmaceutical firm could also use this style of leadership to improve their customer service. For example, consider a manager that requires their workers to record their interactions with clients each week.

The team then gets together to discuss different ways to improve the way they sell their products, covering what works and what doesn’t.

Managers empower representatives to present their findings to executives, who keep an open mind on new ideas. Through agile leadership, the team improves their client-facing interactions and makes communication with executives accessible.

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Topics: Leadership

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