What characterizes an Agile leader?

Anna Majowska
4 min readOct 18, 2021

Agile work environments and processes center around self-organization and adaptation to fluctuating demands. Therefore a leader of an Agile project, or an Agile company department, should have the ability to let people make their own decisions and make them fast — right? Sometimes that can seem like the opposite of any leadership at all. But that’s usually only appearances. Maintaining the freely organizing individuals’ alignment with a company’s broader strategies and goals is at the core of an Agile leader’s work. So, arguably, ensuring a successful Agile transformation lies to a high degree with choosing a leader that will be able to do it right!

An Agile team meets with their leader.

Flexibility, openness to change

The best plan for an Agile leader is to be constantly ready to change it to the evolving needs, not to get closed up for tweaks, suggestions, reverting, or scrapping entire chunks of it altogether. It will ensure agility in the team’s work and continuous delivery of value to the clients. The manager must have the ability to deal with constant changes, disruptions, and pivots, to take the team along with the new paradigm — not everyone can do that.

Referring to results, not paths on which to achieve them

The Agile head needs to empower the team to make bold decisions on how to get to the required outcome. The leader’s objective is to keep the presented results in alignment with the company goals, and although on occasion this will mean telling people what to do, most of the time, the team should be encouraged to draw up the plans for themselves. Mentoring teams, rather than ruling them, makes them stronger, loyal, and happier, at the same time bringing better results for everyone.

Keeping tabs on resource allocation

Even though the teams are to self-organize, it would be unwise not to monitor if they’re not taking on too much at a time nor too little. The chief must balance the scheduled workload with the team’s capacity at any given time, and depending on the project scope and nature. There is some danger in leaving the teams free to plan their work, that their ambitions will either exceed or underestimate the time and expertise available. It’s the leader’s role to keep an eye on that and make suggestions when necessary.

Juggling kindness with tyranny

An Agile project, department, or company leader must connect with the team and show support, but they also have to call the team’s bluff and put them straight when necessary. Sticking with either kindness or harshness alone will usually lead to problems for a part of the team. People vary in nature: some respond to praise, while another respond to threat.

Mitigating risks, conflict, and bottlenecks

For the process to remain Agile, everyone, the manager included, has to stay on top of impediments, waste, and risks. The leader specifically should address the dangers and blockers presenting at the level above the team, which impacts it nevertheless. Analyzing the issues and deciding when/if to inform the workers of newly identified risks will help minimize waste and frustration for teams. An uncomplicated way for the leader to stay on top of the inner team goings-on is through being a member of their visual board. It doesn’t mean the controller has to sit in the room with the team and watch their actions like a hawk — they can log in just a few times a week to see if they make progress, stick to WIP limits or come to a block for some reason.

An Agile leader with her team.

Observing, analytical and forward-thinking

One of an Agile leader’s core tasks is attending to signs of problems, noticing any improvement opportunities: within the team and at a broader company scope. Being Agile means forever changing, and hopefully, for the better! Teams themselves will be best able to spot the need for changes in their process, but sometimes an outsider’s perspective is much needed to make accurate observations. Here’s where the manager can shine.

These traits would make a decent Agile leader, but they alone will not turn your organization Agile all on their own. The entire team has to become familiar with what an Agile mindset means, how to get closer to a flexible and value-driven workflow, what needs changing in the company culture. So, although starting by appointing a leader is a great beginning, make sure not to stop there!

The article was first published on the Kanban Tool Blog.