Leadership in Agile

March 25, 2013

Management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Great leaders have an uncanny ability to motivate people to go that extra mile. Leadership differs from management in that management focuses on controlling and getting things done while leadership focuses on empowering people so that they do can the right thing. This does not mean management should be done away with. Management can be the frame on which we can build leadership to obtain the best results.

Servant leadership
Agile takes a humanistic approach while executing projects, as evidenced by one of the values listed in the manifesto: individuals and interactions over processes and tools. The best leadership model suited for Agile is the servant leadership model. Since it is the knowledge worker who adds value to a project, the needs of the worker become the needs of the company. The leader serves to meet those needs. In this way the focus remains on the worker rather than the leader, and the company profits.

In the servant leader approach, the leader supports those doing the work, playing a facilitating role, and focuses on removing obstacles and making sure the team has all that they need to perform. Business representatives will sometimes make requests that threaten to slowdown the project. Team members may be required to devote some of their time to another project. These actions threaten to hinder the project and put it off track. It is the leader’s responsibility to shield the team from such diversions. The servant leader keeps the team focused on the project vision by communicating it at regular and relevant stages of the development process. Another duty of the leader is to facilitate any training that might be necessary for the team members to work on a project. To sustain the motivation of a team, the leader should also reward the team at regular intervals.

Leadership attributes
So far we have discussed what a leader should do, but what attributes must a leader possess to earn the respect of his or her team members? After all, the leader that is not respected will be ineffective. When leaders possess the traits team members appreciate, the latter are bound to emulate them.

Honesty is probably the highest ranking attribute that team members expect from their leaders. Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge found that honesty was the characteristic most selected in surveys asking what employees consider the most important character trait a leader should have (p. 32).  Leaders who are transparent and accept their shortcomings may be perceived as being more credible, thus leading to an increased between the leader and the team members. Leaders who are willing to stand up to managers and customers to protect their teams are more trusted by team members than those leaders who “toe the company line.” Team members have a deeper respect for leaders who have a definite vision of where they are heading and inspire them to walk that path. Leaders also should possess some technical knowledge to be able to better.

Effective leaders not only act but also enable others to act by sharing the knowledge they possess such as information about the schedule and progress of the project. While enabling others to act, leaders also look towards breaking new frontiers by experimenting and innovating. Leaders are willing to use ideas suggested by team members. On Agile projects, new ideas can be tried out during iterations. If they are successful, they can be adopted, if not, they can be treated as part of the learning experience.

Successful leaders serve their team members by sharing ennobling visions of what they can produce together, providing resources, removing impediments, protecting the team, and being generous with rewards and rewarding words.


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