One of the most common questions I hear from frustrated leaders regarding their teams who work in Agile frameworks, such as Scrum or Kanban, is that leaders feel:
- They no longer have insights into what their teams are doing.
- They no longer can ask what their teams are working on (teams must be protected from outside interference, including management).
- Teams are given full freedom to deliver what they want, when they feel like it, and how they want to.
While leadership looks and feels different than most traditional approaches when using Agile frameworks, leading in Agile organizations doesn’t quite look like this. There as several factors that the modern leader must be aware of to lead more effectively, including:
- Employee motivation is tied to the effectiveness of the organization’s leadership (Latham & Ernst, 2006)
- Organizations must operate in complex environments under higher degrees of uncertainty (Apenko & Chernobaeva, 2016)
- Organizational success is driven by quickly creating and innovating on intellectual capital (Ehin, 2008)
With organization success linked to leadership effectiveness, selecting a leadership style that addresses the needs of the organization becomes essential (Ghasabeh et al., 2015).
While there are literally dozens of leadership models published, two styles of leadership seem to arise when discussing how to lead in Agile organizations: transactional leadership and transformational leadership. The table below summarizes several of the characteristics of each style.
Typical characteristics of Transactional and Transformational Leaders
In his quintessential book Drive, Dan Pink asserts that people tend to be motivated by three things: autonomy, pursuit of mastery, and sense of purpose. Furthermore, employees that work with intellectual capital (i.e. those that generate innovative ideas) do so on a voluntary and cooperative basis (Ehin, 2008). Lastly, multiple authors state that motivation leads to several benefits, such as greater innovation, increased job satisfaction, higher performance, and enhanced buy-in during rapidly changing conditions. So, when it comes to motivating others in innovation, using a transformational style tends to align with motivation more than a transactional style.
In a recent study, the authors found that while both a directive (transactional) and an empowerment (transformational) leadership style can increase task proficiency, only those followers who were empowered displayed increased proactive behaviors over time (Martin et al., 2013). If the follower is not ready for empowerment just quite yet, the leader and follower together should jointly, openly and transparently, create and execute a plan to raise the follower’s skill.
Does this mean as a leader you can’t tell your people what to do? Not necessarily. There will be times where some direction and intervention will be needed - especially if they might do harm to themselves, others, or the company. The focus as a leader in an Agile organization should be on creating the safe and environment to enable the teams to self-organize, learn, and deliver upon clear outcomes. Leaders must establish reasonable guard rails (not just have “free range” teams doing whatever they want whenever they desire) without impeding or limiting their progress. This includes an emphasis in two-way transparency, between leaders and teams.
Is there an exact formula or “X” number of steps for leadership success? No, there is no silver bullet– most know leadership isn’t that cut and dry. As a leader, you need to have open and honest conversations with your teams (and yourself) so that you can create the environment for not only you to lead, but also have your teams perform. Mistakes will happen – that’s part of any learning curve. As a leader, create the environment for success for your teams, and take the transformational journey with them.
Apenko, S., & Chernobaeva, G. (2016). The influence of complex adaptive leadership on the efficiency of business management. Proceedings of the European Conference on Management, Leadership & Governance, 17-24.
Ehin, C. (2008). Un-managing knowledge workers. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 9(3), 337-350.
Ghasabeh, M. S., Reaiche, C., & Soosay, C. (2015). The emerging role of transformational leadership. Journal of Developing Areas, 49(6), 459-467.
Latham, G. P., & Ernst, C. T. (2006). Keys to motivating tomorrow’s workforce. Human Resource Management Review, 16, 181-198.
Martin, S., Liao, H., & Campbell, E. (2013). Directive versus empowering leadership: A field experiment comparing impacts on task proficiency and proactivity. Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1372-1395.
With over 25 years experience, Steve Martin coaches and guides all levels, starting with senior leadership (CxOs) and managers, iterating on strategies, organization design, and re-engineering business processes using Agile and Lean Startup principles. Steve also coaches teams and other Agile coaches to ultimately help in the delivery of highly valued products and services to their clients. He is a sought-after trainer known for putting a fun yet thought-provoking twists on his presentations and workshops. As a former manager and director, Steve draws upon his direct experiences to help those new to leadership roles transition more smoothly, focusing on interpersonal and communication skills. He is also pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership and change management.