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Why agile leadership is key in these uncertain times

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Yvette Francino Agile Consultant, Yvette Francino, LLC
 

As our world turns upside down with the Coronavirus pandemic, most companies are reacting rather than responding. But in times of uncertainty, business agility provides stability—a way to manage change and respond productively. It's the difference between how an agile organization operates in uncertain markets versus how traditional organizations do it.

Organizations that have been undergoing business agility transformations have shown benefits such as increased revenue, faster turnaround times, and higher-quality offerings, according to the Business Agility Institute's 2019 Business Agility Report.

However, the biggest challenge highlighted in that report was leadership style. As a leader you need to model behavior exemplifying the agile mindset, and results indicated that leaders have not always demonstrated agile leadership skills, buy-in, or support for an agile transformation.

Leadership is a key success factor in any enterprise agile transformation. Here's what you need to know about being an agile leader.

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What style of leadership is expected in agile environments? 

As an enterprise agile coach, I often see confusion and misinformation when it comes to understanding leadership's role in an agile transformation. Executives and managers often associate agility with a framework such as Scrum, rather than a mindset. They may not understand how critical it is not only to understand the agile mindset, but to regularly practice that mindset and lead by example as well.

Even when they understand that their role is critical, leaders may be unclear as to what type of leadership is expected in an agile environment. The industry is full of buzzwords and courses promoting "servant leadership," "lean and agile leadership," or "adaptive leadership."

Evan Leybourn, founder and CEO at the Business Agility Institute, advises to look beyond the buzzwords and focus on the leadership concepts associated with agility.

What is important is not what it is called, but what are the characteristics, he said. Leaders must be able to delegate outcomes, inspire individuals, and give them the space to do a great job.

"[Effective leaders] need to learn quickly that they can't do everything. A good leader is one who elevates the people around them."
Evan Leybourn

These attributes of empowering others, giving autonomy to staff, and involving them in the decision-making process at appropriate levels are universal in all styles of leadership taught in agility classes.

As followers of agile know, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, even when it comes to a specific leadership style. But understanding and adopting an agile mindset forms the basis for strong leadership.

What about authenticity?

Every leader has a unique personality, and each has probably met with more success when demonstrating his or her own authentic style than when trying to follow a prescribed set of guidelines. So, for example, a naturally very technical person who feels an expectation to facilitate "touchy-feely" team-building exercises but doesn't buy into that approach will probably not be successful.

Some leaders were promoted into leadership because of their expertise rather than their people or leadership skills. Others may have had great success using a style of leadership that isn't consistent with the styles usually promoted in agile cultures.

Should those who have had success with their current style change? 

"The question is whether that success was tied to a specific context. A leader who cannot adapt will find success fleeting. We see this all the time in companies and even have a name for it: one-hit wonders." 
—Evan Leybourn

Different leaders will always have different personalities, he added. Two leaders with different personalities can both be inspiring and adaptable.

A strong leader recognizes that there is always room for growth and will work to understand what parts of her leadership style are working well in what context and what parts could be improved, Leybourn said.

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Consider the entire system

In a traditional leadership model, leaders are decision-makers who assign tasks and work to subordinates. These leaders both reap the benefits of recognition for success and take the blame for failure. With their reputation and careers at stake, they are less likely to delegate decision making to those who report to them.

If leaders at the top hold managers accountable in a traditional way, those managers will have a difficult time practicing an agile style of leadership. Practicing agility only within software development teams isn't as effective as practicing business agility throughout an organization, and the same applies to agile leadership. You won't create complete success unless the entire system changes.

Education can be the answer, but Leybourn suggests executive coaching over training classes.

"Bring in someone to sit beside you and help you during the difficult times. Training will help you learn the concepts, but to make it stick—especially in difficult times—you need a great coach."
—Evan Leybourn

Develop the right mindset

One of the most important agile concepts is that there are no right or wrong answers; everything depends on context. When you are dealing with uncertainty and change, there's no leadership book you can refer to that will tell you what to do in every situation.

That's why you must develop a mindset that will guide you to act in accordance with the set of values and principles that you believe in.

Agile values and principles encourage leaders to use collaboration and empower others to grow and share in decision making. Agile leaders look at failures as opportunities to learn and foster trust and psychological safety in their organizations.

"Look beyond the buzzwords. But also understand that, just because something is a buzzword doesn't make it wrong. It doesn't matter how you lead, if you lead in the right way for your teams."
—Evan Leybourn 

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