Agile Leadership Principles -- Helping Your Team Achieve Its Full Potential

A Changed Role

The swirl of Agile activity has caused leaders to re-think their roles in helping teams achieve more, with seemingly less direct management. If the role of a leader is no longer to provide direction, manage resources, ensure quality processes or supervise, what is it? If a leader has limited line of sight into individual performance within a team, how can they know how their employees are doing? If the manager is not the one providing the direction, who is?

As organizations become more agile, we see that leaders feel uncertain about their roles. Having a set of principles which frame leadership behavior can help, regardless of project methodology or the product being produced. Collectively, our 40+ years of experiences -- failures and successes -- have taught us that...

As leaders, we value:

  • Coaching over directing
  • Inspiring over managing
  • Autonomy over control
  • Results over process

Similar to the Agile Manifesto, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.


Although there are situations that require directing (e.g., leading a person who is brand new to a task, reducing explosive reactions to a crisis), when possible, coaching is preferred. Using an interactive coaching style helps build trust and a mutually beneficial relationship. Agile leadership becomes more about asking and less about telling, more about listening and less about talking. Coaching a person encourages them to engage the creative process and generate their own ideas, building a skillset for future independence and problem solving. The person closest to the work generally has the best ideas on how to complete it -- coaching is anchored to the belief that we, as leaders, benefit from leveraging the talents, knowledge and skills of team members. By fostering those characteristics in others, we are able to increase overall productivity of the team, and as a bi-product, morale.


Traditionally, leaders managed their resources. If we fall back on managing, we are forced to dig into the details, be all places at all times, and have a depth of knowledge that bridges on expert. We feel compelled to know everything, in order to manage and make decisions effectively. We take pride in directly influencing the output of our resources. But how does that translate into areas where we have limited expertise, or large initiatives that have multiple teams doing multiple things? A c-suite leader said recently that in order to lead a large-scale initiative, we have to inspire people -- otherwise, how will we have capacity to get all people going in the same direction? Additionally, we need to think of "resources" as "people", knowing that every individual brings separate strengths, weaknesses and needs to the team. Using the term "people" helps everyone recognize the important and distinct role that each individual plays.

Inspiration is about creating a shared vision, empowering people to do work and make decisions, knowing it is aligned to a broader goal. Inspiring is about leading with the carrot, getting people excited about the shared vision, and resorting to the stick when there is difficult performance to manage. Inspiring answers the fundamental question of why, so people understand the context for which they are doing the work, and freely support  it. Freedom, paired with agreed-upon decision criteria, gives teams authority to make their own decisions, fostering speed, agility, and work satisfaction.


When you think about a high performing team on which you've worked, how much autonomy was provided?  Did the team have all of the relevant people to be knowledgeable and effective? Were people free to make at least modest decisions? How much innovation was there, in finding better ways to do the work? Controlling the work or the people was the traditional supervisory role -- it helped us to be confident of the quality, and knowledgeable about work output from our respective areas. Today, we see that teams not only benefit from autonomy, they demand it. They recognize that autonomy  helps them to learn, grow, achieve, and push to new levels previously unattainable. Autonomy sounds good on paper, but how do we as agile leaders still have confidence in the quality and comfort in our own knowledge of the work? We ask for transparency, and look for opportunities to praise, celebrate, and as needed, coach the team. Through using these agile leadership principles, we encourage our team to reach for their full potential.

Agile Leaders Focus on Results

At the end of the day, as leaders, we  care about results, but sometimes we get hung up in the minutia of the process. Or we go the other direction, and in an effort to let a team be self-organizing, we avoid holding the team accountable for sharing results. Leaders have an accountability for results, and as such, we should foster an environment where teams feel beholden to sharing results, openly and frequently. By focusing on results rather than process, agile leaders encourage people and teams to come up with creative solutions that are often more efficient or better than the leader could have derived. The team and stakeholders are able to see the value being derived from the effort.

If we lead with the first three agile leadership principles: coaching, inspiring and autonomy, results tend to come naturally. Once people understand the vision and goals, and have the support, latitude and encouragement to achieve them, their own desire to succeed will propel them further than any individual leader could. These leadership principles are the framework by which we guide our behaviors, about which we will share more in the next blog!


A Bit About Us

Paige Vinall is an experienced IT leader, currently Allianz VP Application Development, leading 150+ people to produce and launch new products for the global market. She is known for leading global distributed and cross-functional teams, steering portfolio management efforts, guiding solution innovation, driving business and IT convergence, and bridging the gap to enterprise agility.

Nikki Kelly is seasoned management consultant with 20+ years leading teams and projects. She is a strong leader, adept at building productive, cross-organizational, multi-location teams and motivating people to meet aggressive challenges. She enjoys facilitating groups to strategize, make decisions, improve processes and achieve their potential.

Emily Gallagher is a millennial marketer with a passion for all things digital and a knack for words. She loves puzzling over what makes people tick - that puzzle is the new world of online marketing. She is a lover of the outdoors and efficient processes, and thrives on reaching for big goals in creative ways.