Human Resource Management

What does agile leadership look like?

This is a contributed piece by Jean Tabaka, Agile Fellow at Rally

Although technology continues to change the way that businesses operate and communicate on a day-to-date basis; archaic managerial protocols still remain the norm at many organisations. Many businesses that are looking to get products to market faster, and become more responsive to customer needs, are turning to Agile transformation; whereby organisations manage the software development lifecycle by aligning software development with strategic business objectives, facilitating collaboration, and increasing transparency. However, a business cannot undergo an Agile transformation if the management fails to embrace behavioural characteristics needed by an agile leader.

So what characteristics make an agile leader?

  • Systematic neglect  Understand the limits of how much focus can be allocated to issues
  • Acceptance When is the time right to let go and trust the instincts of the team?
  • Language  Facilitate useful information and pay attention to what remains unspoken
  • Value Become responsible for building a personal sense of value, but what are these?
  • Tolerance of imperfection  Care more for how you can help your team grow
  • Withdrawal  Understanding when to step back


Having coached more than 30,000 individuals and 1,000 organisations on their agile journeys, and guided dozens of large-scale Agile transformations, we know a success story hinges on the ability of the leaders in an organisation to embrace the above characteristics. The focus is ever more on how leaders can adopt new practices that are more in service to the team, rather than control of the team.

Displaying the characteristic of systematic neglect, an agile leader understands the limits of how much focus can be allocated to certain issues. Identify the different behaviours within a team and focus on what needs to remain in practice to get work done, and what needs to be ‘let go of’ in order to support the team and achieve goals more effectively. These ‘behaviour stories’ are usually patterns of processes that have been carried out in organisations for a long period of time – usually without change or modification processes. Eliminating those processes that are unnecessary can create a more efficient team. Similarly, a leader who displays acceptance knows when to let go and trust the instincts of the team around them. Always accept the wisdom of the team and be prepared to support it.

The following characteristics may be a little more obvious but are still important when it comes to discussing key attributes such as listening, language and value. Although managers are typically strong at delivering and facilitating useful, necessary communications, they may lack in skill when it comes to paying attention to what remains unspoken. An agile leader will actively hear what others are saying, but be less aware of what isn’t being said by the team. Language isn’t always the ability to express thoughts non-destructively – it’s more important to express visions and goals articulately. An agile leader uses language to over communicate clarity around the vision so that the supporting teams can effectively deliver this vision. Agile leaders are goal setting, they ultimately own that vision. Although own personal belief shouldn’t be advocated in what is right, they hold themselves personally accountable for how they support their teams. They listen to what teams need to help them come together, to align for a higher purpose, something that is bigger than all of them. The leader knows that, without everyone dedicated to the same goal, the larger vision cannot be met.

It’s also essential that leaders and managers alike understand the process of withdrawal. A strong, agile leader knows when to step back and allows the team to problem solve during its own course, versus inflicting own personal agenda of what is right. They carefully decide what to bring forward to the team, and when.

By embracing agile leadership, businesses can navigate through evolving more to demands and improve performance – ultimately delivering value faster.


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