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Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the ability to navigate and support diverse, cross-functional groups of people, through rapid and evolving change. Are you ready? Cheryl Tansey is running HR in an Agile World workshops in Wellington on 18 July and in Auckland on 25 July. Cheryl and John Baillie share their perspective on agile leadership in HR.
You’ve just arrived at the office and your team are huddling in a circle, around a post-it note covered whiteboard. You hear them talking about goals, priorities and blockers. They speak openly, confidently, and constructively. They’re aligned, they’re listening, and they’re working out how to adapt their plan for the day.
This team is empowered to make decisions, they’re clear on direction, and they’re surrounded by people who know how they can contribute to what they’re building. This is a highly adaptive, agile team. This is the result of agile leadership.
So why is this such a big shift from our current way of leading organisations? Simple. The needs of our organisations have radically changed.
If you ask most ‘leaders’ within traditional organisations whether they’re adaptive, lean and innovative – they will likely say they are. If you put that same leader, however, in a lean, customer focused agile start-up – how would those leadership skills really stand up? Could your leaders survive the demands of a start-up culture?
Traditional v Agile Leadership
The leadership practices we have been using for many decades, were developed to manage efficiency, predictive and production-focused organisations. Our leadership and management practices were built to eliminate variation.
Our HR systems were based on the assumption that leadership roles needed to be:

  1. Predictable (job descriptions)
  2. Constrained (policies galore)
  3. Controlled (formal performance reviews) and
  4. Paid based on the ‘market and not the persons value.

These controlling practices are no longer suitable for leading lean, adaptive, innovative organisations.


Traditional organisationsAgile organisations
  • Predictable
  • Based on certainty and controllable processes
  • Production-focussed outcomes
  • Decisions and responsibility sits with management
  • Governance is based upon short-term project value.
  • Unpredictable
  • Rapidly-changing market, scope and customer needs
  • Innovation focussed outcomes
  • Based on continuous learning from experimentation
  • Complex human-systems
  • Governance is based upon long-term business value and adaptation.

So, what does it mean if you’re a leader within an agile organisation?
An agile leader focuses their attention on developing the communication, commitment and collaboration of their people. They work to increase the effectiveness of people, rather than the efficiency, all while understanding the organisation system as a whole.
How often do your leaders look at how to lean down their operations? How often to they adapt their business? How obvious is their customer in their decision making?
There are a variety of styles which support leadership needs in truly agile organisations, one of which is the philosophy of Servant Leadership. To be of service to your team.

Servant Leadership

While Servant based leadership has been around for quite a while, in agile organisations it finds its true home. Servant Leadership is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organisations. A Servant Leader shares power puts the needs of the customer and employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.


Traditional (typical) leadershipAgile (servant) leadership
  • Command and control
  • Maintains ownership of information
  • Sometimes listens to ideas and suggestions of the team
  • Fights fires and focuses on symptoms
  • Review staff performance annually
  • Responsible for all decisions of the team
  • Rewards individual performance
  • Focuses on people efficiency.
  • Empowering and supportive
  • Openly shares information and knowledge
  • Encourages suggestions and ideas of the team
  • Seeks to uncover root causes of issues
  • Offers immediate, ongoing feedback
  • Shares the decision-making in the team
  • Rewards team performance
  • Focus on people effectiveness.

3Cs of Agile Leadership

Let’s focus on the 3Cs of Agile Leadership:

  1. Communication is the key to how we develop, reflect and learn with our people. Take the time to set up good communication and feedback channels with your teams, to support effective, two-way, open conversations.
  2. Commitment is what we need to inspire, engage and unify our vision. Sharpen your goal setting skills, and help your teams to articulate what good looks like. When a team is part of developing an engaging vision, their commitment to the outcome is incredibly strong.
  3. Collaboration is what allows us to empower achievement and innovation. The rise of multi-discipline, cross-functional teams requires a high-level of facilitation and diversity acceptance. As a leader, take the time to connect your people on their common goal, and understand how they all contribute to achieving that.

As our organisations continue to evolve and change, leadership of the future will be driven by those that can harness and engage the agility of their people.

Remember our question at the beginning: Could your leaders survive the demands of a start-up culture?

If not, then we need to help them learn to adapt. Leadership agility is no longer just a nice skill to have – our organisations will fail if our leaders do not make this transition.

So let’s get started on developing agile leaders. Are your HR practices supporting leadership agility?

written by Cheryl Tansey and John Baillie