The 3 Principles Agile Leaders Should Live By During An Organizational Transformation

By: Cottrell | Nov 09, 2018 |  Agile Transformation,  Article,  Leadership

Today’s Agile leaders manage with a more complete arsenal of skills and techniques than leaders of the past who led fundamentally different teams. For Agile organizations, the days of top-down hierarchy and autonomous decision making have joined the floppy disk as obsolete and outdated concepts in modern business. Leaders still can be effective without following Agile business development principles, but those who embrace the Agile methodology achieve greater success, improve the customer experience, and boost employee engagement.

Modern Agile leaders now see themselves as catalysts supporting their teams’ and organizations’ efforts to accelerate towards organizational agility and increased efficiency. While leaders still exhibit solid situational and personal leadership skills that make them strong individually, they’re adopting key new characteristics and exhibiting forward-thinking traits that set them apart.

What Modern Agile Leaders Get Right

Agile business leaders follow these key principles.

  1. Optimizing the whole.

All too often, leaders understandably don’t fully appreciate the significant change they personally can affect across an entire organization. They can have an outsized positive impact. By necessity, they tend to think within the existing framework of the people who work directly for them and report up to them–and there are often enough troubles there. However, this view limits the big impact they can make across their organization.

Modern leaders strive to create value across the entire company rather than just the department or groups under their jurisdiction. Doing so requires working across different departments and working closely with other leaders and their teams to optimize work. The leaders who are able to gain enough altitude to see (or imagine) work flowing across organizations, from hand-off to hand-off, until that work reaches the customer, will likely find significant opportunities for improvement that ensure the whole company is delivering increased value to its customers.

Optimizing the whole allows the groups that are best able to solve problems to work horizontally across different departments to deliver the best products or customer experiences. This requires leaders to build durable relationships with key colleagues, personnel, and other managers to ensure they craft positive experiences, jointly work out challenges, share disappointments, and have the necessary hard conversations about how the company can improve as a whole.

  1. Personal Leadership and Context Awareness

Agile leaders are embracing a new level of introspection about themselves, their leadership approach, and their role within their company. They do so willingly because they’ve bought into a radical idea that by empowering their people they are harnessing far more capability, wisdom, and horsepower than they could ever hope to have by themselves. This is a massive shift from a “hero leader” who does it all, to the catalyst leader who empowers her teams. This change can begin with a simple personal leadership assessment that will remind leaders of what they value, what matters, and what their role is.

Personal leadership questions include:

  • Why am I here?
  • Why am I investing so much in the place at this time?
  • What do I hope to accomplish?
  • What am I going to do about it?

The answers to these questions serve to remind the Agile leader of what motivates them and what they care about. That has significant benefits to everyone around them, but mostly, to the leader herself.

Now the truth is leaders–Agile or otherwise–often find themselves in very tough spots. Clients are upset, leadership is growing impatient, work isn’t being delivered on time, etc. There’s no end to the challenges. So how does a modern leader respond? Again, rather than simply passing along the angst, anger, or abuse, modern leaders are learning to gain context, to find root causes, and to make sense of the cacophony of noise swirling around them.

Gaining context awareness can be a huge asset, even in the midst of a crisis. Again, there are a few questions that leaders can ask to gain valuable perspective:

  • What is really going on, and what can I/we do about it?
  • Do we collectively have the skills and competencies needed?
  • How will my and my team’s actions affect those around me?

By dedicating time to answering these questions, the leader can see how to tackle the problem utilizing the team’s strengths and mitigating weaknesses. Rather than rushing in, can offer a situational view that will provide the whole team breathing room to think more clearly about how to take effective action swiftly.

  1. Effectively Empowering Talent by Managing With Intention

Author David Marquet, former commander of the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine, discusses the impact intentional leaders can have on every level of an organization in his book, “Turn the Ship Around.”(It’s one of my favorite leadership books!)

Marquet discusses how intentional leaders empower employees to make smart, sound decisions at the origin of insight and seek the best understanding of problems and opportunities. Managing with intention provides a frame of reference to create intentional employees who are equipped to be leaders themselves who in turn manage with intention.

While I suggest you read Marquet’s excellent book, here are three of the main skills necessary to lead with intention:

  • Clarification: Make sure all team members fully understand the scope of their roles.
  • Competency: Ensure team members have the ability to do their work, solve problems, and make sound decisions.
  • Certification: Have employees closest to problems discuss the different angles and dimensions of the problem that are critical for success.

Leading with intention shifts management from a top-down decision-making framework to a bottom-up hierarchy. Employees at the root of problems grapple with issues and propose various solutions. They are fully empowered to overcome challenges and only require a leader to approve their decisions and provide additional insight or guidance. The entire team leads with intention, which saves valuable time since leaders aren’t working through problems alone and can rely on their teams to overcome challenges. Marquet calls this “leader-leader,” and it’s powerful.

Leaders often think their primary duty in the game is to block and tackle and make hard decisions. Intentional leaders, however, share certain decision-making rights by allowing team members to evaluate, judge, and assess problems with all the right thought behind it. Intentional leadership allows individuals to take ownership of challenges rather than roll problems upstairs to senior executives. This shift empowers individuals at the point of problems to solve crucial issues, eliminates cumbersome chain-of-command hierarchy, increases speed and efficiency, and makes your company and teams more agile.


Intentional Agile leaders share many traits with their peers, including confidence, integrity, empathy, honesty, and accountability. They also dedicate time to thinking about how they can best prepare the people and teams closest to problems to be ready, willing, and able to solve challenges and to properly inform supervisors of their results.


For information on our approach to building lasting business agility, you can check out our Transformation Services page.

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