Do We Need ‘Agile’ Leadership?

Yesterday Adriana Girdler and I presented Timeless Leadership at the Toronto Agile Tour. Our intent was to show that everything we need to know about leadership has already been invented, we just need to stop and look around once in a while instead of jumping on the next agile fad.

Does anyone remember when Agile Readiness Assessments were all the rage in 2008/2009? Then we realized change readiness assessments have existed for decades and we moved on. Oh, plus change management is boring as hell so we lost our enthusiasm for it.

Remember when Teal was all the rage a couple of years ago? That fad died quickly once people realized spiral dynamics was a painfully deep topic that has been around since the 1960’s.

Remember the ‘being vs doing’ debates? That’s run its course as well, except for the late agile adopters who are just re-discovering what us old dogs went through a decade ago.

Cynefin had a bit of blip on the fad radar, but once we realized it’s quite hard, we moved onto the next shiny thing.

There are too many other fads to list, but now we’re smack dab in the middle of thinking we need to redefine leadership because Agile requires different leadership.

Here’s the thing, take what we agile practitioners say with a grain of salt. Many of us get bored easily, are curious by nature and constantly fidget with new (to us) ideas in order to keep our brains happy. That’s why most of us are unemployable. We’re roamers, explorers, and could rarely, or never, be the 3, 5 or 10-year employee.

The agile movement started in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, but it might shock some people by learning that business existed before 2001 and many organizations thrived before 2001, thrive today, and will continue to thrive long after Agile is dead. Oh, some believe Agile is dead already but that’s a debate for another day.

We Don’t Need to Redefine Leadership

The main argument in favor of creating agile leadership is because our context is different. We’re in the age of creativity, or knowledge, and people who think of organizations as a machine can’t use the same mental models and practices for leading an agile environment.


Most leadership ideas that have evolved ever since we crawled out of the swamp specifically show that your leadership style needs to adapt based on your context, and there are plenty of theories of leadership out there but since we agile people didn’t invent them, they’re no good and we need our own.

For those keeping score at home, this is called Not Invented Here syndrome.  We’re all guilty of this because, as my professor at MIT said, “anyone can doodle an organizational structure on the back of a napkin, there is zero skill needed to do that.

Let’s start with post-industrial revolution leadership ideas:

1) Great-Man Theory:  Leadership comes from within.

In the 1800’s Thomas Carlyle wrote: “The history of the world is the biography of great men“. The idea was, leadership was more or less ingrained in people. The argument against Great Man Theory was that it didn’t factor in society and the environment in which that leader was operating.

Either way, Carlyle hypothesized that internal character, charisma, and attributes are what made leaders great. There is truth to this, but yes, what’s happening around that leader and how they’re responding to that is also important.

2) Trait Leadership:  An extension of Great Man Theory

In the late 1800’s leadership thinkers began to explore Great-Man Theory more and some reinforced that theory stating that the internal qualities of leaders cannot be learned and that they were part of the leader’s personality.

In the 1940’s R.M Stogdill stated that leadership exists between persons in a social situation and that persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations.

At the time, leadership thinkers thought his statement more or less killed the credibility of Great Man Theory.

In my view, this was the birth of context-driven leadership. I suppose someone has trademarked that too.

Since then, ideas about leadership combined context, social-setting, era and personality traits as being important factors when discussing leadership. Here are some of the more popular ones:

1) 1930: Lewin’s Leadership Styles:
2) 1970: Servant Leadership (No, Agile didn’t invent this, Greenleaf did)
3) 1980’s: Situational Leadership (Blanchard)

A longer list can be found here.

While agile pundits say “but agile needs different leadership!!” consider these stories:

Henry Ford gets credit for inventing the assembly line. He didn’t. Ransom Olds (creator of Oldsmobile) did. Henry Ford simply added a conveyer belt to make it more effective.

At the time (late 1800’s), I’m pretty sure Google didn’t exist so it was unlikely that Ransom googled “how to manufacture cars faster

He experimented, learned, adapted and refined the approach, and made it work.

In the early 1900’s Ford had a turnover problem. Upskilling new people was time-consuming and expensive so Henry Ford started paying workers $5/hour which was unheard of at the time. That created quite a social rift between white and blue collar workers.

There was a catch. He paid them a guaranteed $2.50/hour and appointed a social group to visit workers houses to make sure they were living cleanly. No drinking, gambling, and running a happy home.

Again, I’m pretty sure he didn’t Google “effective HR practices for reducing turnover

He experimented, and it worked as turnover was dramatically reduced. While that practice probably won’t work today, the method he used to create it is what we’re after. Observe, hypothesize, experiment, measure. Or PDCA.

Obviously, in today’s context a base salary only goes so far, but back then, in that context, it worked.

Great leaders know their context, look around internally and externally, try small experiments, get feedback, inspire others to action, and deal with the shit when it comes raining down. There are countless stories throughout the history of business, before Agile, about great leadership and the context of agile changes absolutely nothing when you boil away the noise us consultants constantly spew.

Here are more examples:

Alan Mulally arguably turned around Ford with a daily standup.

Herb Kelleher of Southwest inspired his team to invent the 10-minute turnaround in the 1970’s when they needed to serve a 4-plane passenger scheduled with 3 planes after they needed to sell one of their planes. Great stories about Herb can be found here, and here.

But Companies are Dying Faster!

Another argument for the need for Agile Leadership is that organizations are dying faster. (insert S&P diagram)

Of course they are! That’s how society evolves. You can say the strongest will survive, or any other cutesy statement, but that’s today’s reality. With our desire to move to a digital, self-serve society, starting a business is easier than it’s ever been and today’s organizations have much less control over their future than they used to.

The birth and death of companies is a naturally occurring phenomenon and you could argue that the death of 1 organization that spawns 20 new ones is actually better for society, and the economy.

We don’t need Agile Leadership, it’s just a way to sell more worthless certifications and for us consultants to make money. That’s it. We don’t need Agile Leadership because to take an idea from famed economist Adam Smith, two things will never change: Competition and Innovation.

As we complete more, we drive up the need for innovation. As we innovate more, we create more competition.

If you must, read Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence, it was agile and business agility before those phrases existed.

Why So Crusty?

I’m a skeptic by nature, so I’m a fan of James Randi. James Randi is a famed skeptic who created the one million dollar paranormal challenge. If someone could scientifically prove paranormal phenomena, he’d give that person a million dollars.

Why? Because people have been ripping off unsuspecting consumers with promises of speaking to their dead parents, or by selling them “super-hydrated water” or other nonsense. The intent is to defend unsuspecting consumers of people who are trying to take advantage of them.

While it probably sounds mean, sometimes we agile people do the same. We promise magic, peddle easy answers, and I’d argue many of us haven’t ever written a line of code, or started an organization, or even managed people in an organization. We just read a bunch of shit that confirms our biases and then proceed to parrot them to the masses. In our session, I asked if anyone had to put someone on the performance improvement plan or fire someone. Two of about 100 hands went up. We never talk about this in agile but I’ve had to do that twice when I had a real job, and it’s not fun.

How would agile leadership have helped me?

The three best (read: worst) arguments I’ve seen to defend agile leadership, and the certifications associated to it, are “just because it’s easy to get, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable” and “everyone’s gotta eat“. The 3rd argument is “I can do more good, and reach more people if I offer a certification because people want them” Wrong. You just suck at marketing and are taking the easy way out.

Viva la capitalism.

What’s the Point?

If you’re a leader in an organization, don’t get distracted by the razzle-dazzle of agile certifications and agile leadership noise. Read this, join a local meetup group, talk to leaders in other companies, share, and listen to stories about leadership and if you care enough, you’ll figure it out. I promise. If you need more concrete ideas and practices, join a reputable leadership association like:

Situational Leaderhip Global Network

MIT Leadership Centre: Our session was based on MIT’s 4-CAPS model that is abstracted enough that I believe the ideas are timeless.

Christopher Avery’s Leadership Gift: I know many who’ve been through it and without a doubt, they are some of the greatest leaders I’ve seen in action.

Global Leadership League

Institute of Coaching

There are many more. None will promise you the quick fix of a two-day certification course, but if you’re serious about upping your skills in leadership, look around, there are plenty of choices if you’re willing to put in the hours.

Great Leadership Books/Articles:

Weology, Peter Aceto

In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters

Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni (not a ‘leadership’ book per se, but a wonderful story of what leadership looks like)

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, HBR

Leadership in the Age of Uncertainty, Deborah Ancona

As John Seely Brown said, “The way forward paradoxically is not to look ahead, but to look around