agile leadership

Traditional vs. agile leadership, explained

Reading time: about 10 min

Since its inception at the beginning of the 21st century, agile leadership has taken the business world by storm, empowering teams to create better products in fast-paced environments while embracing the power of experimentation, data, and change. 

Unlike traditional management approaches, which focus on top-down decision-making power in one individual and rely on pre-planned, linear, and rigid systems that resist change and feedback, agile management embraces the unknown, allowing non-hierarchical teams to experiment with new ideas and novel solutions, relying on real-time data and employee and customer feedback to make improvements to a product or process. Agile turns managers into mentors—leaders who help others become leaders by creating processes that help them develop and shine. 

The result? Teams that can do more with less and feel better doing it.

But for all the benefits of agile—and all the talk from management about jumping on board—many executives lag behind, struggling to incorporate new principles into old systems. Others might feel confused about the distinctions between traditional and agile leadership values and principles and how to apply them day-to-day.

This article will help distinguish between traditional and agile leadership styles, discuss how to put agile leadership into practice, and explain why the change is worth the effort.

Traditional leadership vs. agile leadership

We all have an image of a classic, traditional leader: a lone manager who helms the corporate ship, issuing plans, decrees, and opinions and ensuring that employees carry out the plan with as much efficiency as possible.

This image comes from an old management model, which viewed the organization as a machine and employees as cogs who needed to perform their narrow roles quickly with as few questions as possible. In this scenario, the manager's primary role was to create and disseminate linear plans and control their execution. This system depended on strict hierarchies, clearly defined roles, and hidebound rules—with little room for innovation. As you can probably guess, this didn't allow employees much fulfillment, flexibility, or freedom. And it didn't allow the organization to respond creatively to changes coming from the market, the competition, or customer or employee feedback.

Agile management arose as a response to some of the weaknesses of traditional management. The creators of Agile saw that, too often, managers got in the way of their employees' creativity, stymieing their natural motivation and abilities. They wanted to create a system that unleashed their employees' existing skills and knowledge sets, getting out of the way to foster a system of collaboration, experimentation, and feedback. 

Agile management is a transformative philosophy that can't work without transformed leadership. It's not a checklist to tick through at the end of the day or a new tech fix for a buggy problem. To experience the benefits of agile management, executives have to embrace a unique style of leadership—one that challenges much of how they've been taught to run a company. But the results—a company full of satisfied employees who can deliver real results to customers in even the most turbulent times—speak for themselves.

An agile leader needs to lead, of course. But much of the work is done behind the scenes, creating the processes and conditions that help teams excel. In the Agile system, qualities prized in traditional management—respect for norms and decisiveness—might take a backseat to qualities like curiosity or communication and other qualities that encourage teamwork. Agile leaders embrace chaos and ambiguity, trusting the people and the process to lead to the right outcome. Agile leaders also trust in the data, believing that trying (and even failing) again and again will give their teams the information to excel in the long run.

Still confused about the differences between traditional and Agile leadership? Here's a brief breakdown that might help.

agile leadership

Quick tips to becoming an agile leader 

Change doesn't happen overnight, and it can be tricky to shift decades worth of training about being an effective leader. But if agile can teach us anything, it's that transformation is possible—and that it moves from the outside in and the inside out. If you want to transform your organization into a nimble, agile operation, start by transforming yourself into the agile leader it needs.

Lead by example

One of the most effective things a leader can do to transition their company to Agile is to cultivate the agile leader within. Agile organizations are all about processes that free everyone to be leaders—and to allow everyone else to step into their best self, a leader has to demonstrate the behavior and mindset they wish their organization to adopt. For example, if you talk about the importance of embracing collaboration and work-life balance but then reward those who continually work late or fail to involve others in decision-making, your words will lose meaning, and teams will see it as a lack of commitment to the change. 

Traditional management has often treated leaders as special and apart. But in an agile operation, people are operating much more as equals, and feedback is the name of the game. Leadership is still vital, of course. But a leader will be marked primarily by their openness and humility—their ability to receive ideas from others, to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, to try and fail, and to let others excel. In an agile operation, leaders are down in it with everyone else, trying to find the best solutions. And this takes some new leadership skills. 

Get comfortable with uncertainty

In traditional organizations, the leader comes up with a plan and implements it. The plan may have flaws, and those flaws might cost the organization in the long run, but in the meantime, there is certainty. Stability. Not so in agile organizations, in which teams test a series of hypotheses to collect data and create better processes and products. 

To manage this approach, a leader must cultivate a deep sense of curiosity and comfort with the process itself. Instead of wanting to know the end from the beginning, try to create processes that will allow you to create clear roles that suit each person's talents, collect the best data, and funnel that data back into better work. It will help if you get to know your teammates personally so you can trust what skills and insights they're bringing to the table.

Shift toward collaboration

One mind can't know everything, but traditional management approaches put all the pressure to develop strategy, processes, and products onto one person: the executive. This model doesn't take into account the expertise and knowledge of the employees on the front lines or the customers who use the product. 

As an executive moving toward Agile, try shifting your mindset from one of control to one of collaboration. See each employee as someone whose job gives them unique knowledge about the products and processes you've created and how those products or processes could be better. Consider how including your customer earlier in the R&D process could help you discover problems and issues before they start, saving you lots of money and the customer lots of headaches. Start noticing the benefits of a group mind, and embrace opportunities to learn from it. 

Look for ways to make collaboration easier for your teams, especially if they’re working remotely. Visual collaboration can bring teams together—from anywhere—to share ideas and align on projects quickly and efficiently

Foster an agile culture

It's important to lead by personal example when creating an agile culture—a workplace that lets people know that their skills are welcome, that collaboration is encouraged, and that failure is not a bad word.

Many companies think culture is simply a matter of icebreakers and happy hours. But investing in an agile culture means creating the conditions where agility can occur—where people can brainstorm, collaborate, fail, and give feedback in a real, supported way.

Make space for ideas

The backbone of an agile organization is each team member's ideas. So it's critical to create a deliberate place where teams can let loose and brainstorm big ideas and innovate new solutions to old problems. This might look like chalking out an hour each week, ordering lunch, and letting people fill up a whiteboard with ideas on a theme. Or it could look like bringing in clay, markers, and toys and asking people to imagine a new way into a nagging problem they've been facing on a project. Regardless, this is about creating a regular, playful space where people can think outside the confines of a narrow task, project, or team. 

Remember: this space is all about cross-functional collaboration! In that spirit, make sure to mix it up and invite people from different departments or projects so that people can talk across disciplines and get insight into issues and solutions they might not be exposed to in their daily interactions.

Put feedback first

Too often, people finish a big project and forget the most important part: evaluating how it went. With Agile, feedback is everything. As an agile team leader, make sure that you prioritize feedback as a critical part of your team's agile journey. 

The data teams collect as part of their processes should be considered, then plugged back into the next iteration to make it better. Make time for teams to present the data they collected on a project when it's finished, as well as reflect more personally on their performance and what the team did well and what it could do better the next time. That way, the product and the process are constantly getting better.

Empower teams through clarity and alignment 

Agile leaders play a key role in creating systems and processes that help teams become more autonomous, collaborative, and skillful workers who can bring better products to market more efficiently and effectively. 

In traditional management, a leader's time is spent working 'in' the system. But in agile leadership, a leader's skills should be devoted to working 'on' the system, working holistically on ways to improve the system so that teams can take ownership, learn from each other, and innovate.

This is also known as a "Gardener" approach to management. Instead of telling team members what to do and how to do it, an agile manager sows seeds for alignment, helping each team member understand their role in the company's mission. This type of manager ensures each person is:

  • Engaged and using their skills toward the broad group goals
  • Watering the ground through clear communication, trust, and openness 
  • Encouraging feedback and a culture of learning from failures
  • Nurturing team member growth by investing in skills development
  • Helping each team member identify and work toward their goals
  • Weeding by holding people accountable and firing and hiring according to company values and culture needs

Agile leaders should look for ways to communicate clearly and help team members reach a shared understanding, such as through the use of visuals. Visuals not only align teams on goals and projects quickly, but they also bring to light any roadblocks that could be slowing down progress.

In this approach, a leader is not a hotshot, nor are they the center of attention. Instead, they prepare the ground for people to flourish and cultivate their talents and skills to benefit the whole organization.

Shifting to agile leadership requires a major pivot in old ways of thinking about leadership and management. Moving away from top-down management models that promise control and stability might feel chaotic, but the benefits of agile leadership far outweigh the costs.

agile leadership

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