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Why leaders are no longer needed in an agile context – truth or myth?

Susanne Katharina Ruff
September 28, 2020

What precisely is this thing called agile?

Agile working means cross-functional collaboration to deliver concrete and measurable value within short structured time intervals. Therefore, the removal of silo thinking, and the use of swarm intelligence are among the most important framework conditions of agile organizations. A clear vision and a radical willingness to change are also crucial for the whole organization because setting up agile project organizations does not necessarily mean that the organization itself is also ready for agile structures. This challenge usually becomes visible when employees in agile projects are disciplinary managed out of the traditional line organization. Agile working requires and promotes an agile corporate culture and is consequently one of the key factors for organizational dexterity as a future success factor for companies.

Why do we need to rethink leadership?

In the traditionally hierarchical environment, leaders play a comparatively more authoritarian, directive, and controlling role because the possibilities to take over responsibility and to organize themselves are less pronounced among their employees than in an agile team. However, various Capgemini studies (e.g. Virtual organizations need real leadership or The Digital Talent Gap) show that current and especially future employees attach increasing importance to creative freedom, cooperation on an equal footing, as well as trust and support when choosing an employer. In order to meet these expectations, leadership must also change in non-agile environments. The needs and wishes of employees are becoming increasingly important. We are convinced that this requires a new leadership role.

The first step to dexterity: A new understanding of leadership

In the role of Agile Ambassador, leaders combine agile values with existent organizational values and bring them to life in more agile structures. By supporting the development of an agile mind set and methodically enabling agile ways of working, they create the necessary environment for self-organized work. In this environment, boundaries should be broad enough for employees to try out their new roles and responsibilities as well as live the agile values. However, the boundaries should also be tight enough to convey a sense of security. This includes a positive error culture and an open attitude to feedback – both must be actively introduced, exemplified, and sustainably established by leaders. This requires that the leadership team itself acquires a common and shared understanding of agility and can learn from each other (see Capgemini’s Agile at Scale study).

In the role of agile ambassador, executives understand themselves as true servant leaders, and can also be effective in hierarchical environments. They not only know agile methodologies, but also lead on an equal footing and with a lot of trust and enablement competence. Agile leadership focuses on the comprehensive enablement and empowerment of employees. This goes along with the expectation of employees for their leaders to exemplify agile principles such as adaptability, willingness to learn, and self-organization, as pioneers, and to encourage their agile teams to do the same.

But how to start?

Executives should be self-reflective and able to assess for themselves the extent to which their behavior is already in line with agile leadership. The following questions can help to reflect:

  1. What do the agile principles mean to me? How could my organization benefit from them? To what extent and how do I want to integrate them into my daily work and bring them to life?
  2. How can I put more responsibility into the teams and learn to have the necessary confidence?
  3. How can I ensure good cooperation with areas that are not (yet) agile?

Agile leadership does not need an agile environment. Executives can start leading in a more agile way everywhere and directly in their daily working environment and establish an agile mindset. Just start trying and celebrate small steps already as successes.

Thanks to the co-authors Thi Hoang Anh Nguyen and Stefanie Janssen.