What makes a good agile leader

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As discussed in previous blogs, successful implementations of agile rely on the right type of culture and culture is driven by leaders in organisations. So what makes a good agile leader?

I recently attended a conference on leadership and, perhaps not surprisingly, I found many of the characteristics of modern leadership are closely related to those required by leaders in agile environments.  

One of the speakers discussed “the generous leader” and the qualities sound remarkably like those required by leaders wishing to make agile a reality in organisations.  So I found an article in the Huffington Post that describes generous leadership pretty well. I make no apologies for using some of the themes in this article.

So how do the two styles (generous and agile) compare and can either make a our projects, programmes, portfolios and business successful?

Open mindedness
That is, being open to all ideas wherever they are from and even if they do not at first seem palatable. This is a recognition that members of your team may actually have the best ideas, and fostering a culture where innovation and idea generation is normal. This is one of the key themes of Agile thinking.

Trust and patience  
Trust is two way, can take time to build up and is easy to destroy.  An agile leader should work on the basis of trust unless the trust is broken. They also need to be trusted – no one will follow a leader they do not trust. This means always acting in the same way as they speak, or expect others to act. Trust also implies patience – allowing and expecting people to deliver the outcomes they have been trusted to deliver.

Honesty and respect
Agile depends on this. It is being honest about the bad news as well as the good – we often learn more from our mistakes than our successes.  As we all know, it is far nicer to work in environments where we are respected.

No blame culture and praise
This is endemic in agile. However, agile talks of it but doesn't often tell us how to achieve it. The generous leader does not tolerate it. This implies actively stamping on those who want to pass blame and creating an environment where people take personal responsibility for their own and their team’s actions. This also implies actively seeking opportunities to praise good work – this is very motivating and helps to create highly productive teams.  It is also important to celebrate small successes as this helps teams to focus on their goals and creates an environment which is fun to work in.

Being humble
I think the definition “the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance” sums this up. If you look at any great leaders who have done good, they are all humble people. It means being able to put ones own ego to one side and realise that, as a leader, your skills are as important, but no more important, than any other team member.  

Another aspect is putting others before yourself. This is multi faceted. It ranges from not taking personal credit for things, but rather crediting the team to putting the team’s needs before your own. It also means that even if you get offended, not bearing grudges and being able to forgive.  

Active listening is also important. As leaders, we learn far more and gain more trust and respect by listening to people rather than always being the one doing the talking, or worse, the telling.  

Mentoring 
Whilst being humble, leaders should recognise that they have have skills and qualities that could benefit others. Mentoring will help people grow and will make teams and organisations stronger.

Sustainability
Whilst agile leaders should expect a lot of teams, this should never be at the cost of the wellbeing of the individuals within them.  Although very busy times are inevitable, the overall approach should be one of a sustainable pace. Physical environment is also important. Whilst teams can produce brilliant work in times of adversity, creating a physical environment that people feel happy and privileged to work in will produce highly productive agile teams.

Kindness and care
Agile talks a lot about respect, but kindness and care is often not mentioned, or considered. Agile also very often discusses the team above the individual.  However, good teams and good leaders must look after each other and “be there for each other” when things get tough.  

In summary
I hope this brief look into agile leadership has been useful.  I discuss more in my book “Understanding Agile – a guide for managers"

It is also one of the key streams in the Agile Business Framework, being developed by The Agile Business Consortium (formerly the DSDM Consortium).

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Posted by Steve Messenger on 25th Oct 2016

About the Author
Steve is the current Chairman of Agile Business Consortium.

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