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Leadership, Management & Agile

Christine Holzschuh
Christine Holzschuh

Agile is based around self-organizing teams. Does that mean the end of leadership and management?

Leadership and management is a subject which has always fascinated me. Is there a distinction between the two (can one lead and not manage and vice versa)? And what makes one successful on both accounts?

To me, leadership is about strategy. A leader sets a vision. They understand the environmental context, read the signs, and draw conclusions to define the next goal.

Management is the complement to leadership. It is about the tactics which will fulfill the leader’s vision.  Managers also need to understand context, read signs and draw conclusions, but they do so in order to achieve the leader’s goal.   

When I started working on agile projects, my concepts of leadership and management were put to the test. Within the Agile Manifesto, one of the Twelve Principles of Agile Software is that “the best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”.  If teams are self-organizing, does that mean that there is no leadership and / or no management?

Based on my definitions, leadership and management are both alive and well in agile, but in a different way than in the past. In non-agile methodologies, only a few members of the team were permitted to lead and to manage, while the rest of the team carried out tasks. In agile, all members of the team have a say in which goals will be achieved and how the work will be carried out. 

This can be a frightening notion to those in an organization that were the sole leaders and managers. Having to now share these roles with the rest of the team, do leaders and managers disappear?

In my experience, both roles are still needed, but again in a non-traditional way. Leaders now set a higher-level vision for the team to break into individual goals. And managers now coach, monitor and foster the “self-organization” of the team as they work towards those goals.

Not all leaders and managers who are used to working in a traditional environment find the transition into the agile mindset an easy one. If one is used to leading / managing based on power bestowed by rank, they do not have a hierarchy to fall back on. If one is used to leading / managing based on expertise, they will find that they are not the only expert in the room.

Again, the Agile Manifesto’s Twelve Principles of Agile Software provides a hint to leaders and managers feeling lost – “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

To me, that statement closely aligns with servant leadership. Robert K. Greenleaf popularized the concept of servant leadership in the 1970s. Within his seminal essay, he states “the difference [between a traditional leader and servant leader] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served”. Moreover, states:

While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid”, servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Although Greenleaf’s concepts are aimed at leaders, I believe these ideas are essential to managers working within agile teams. In my role as a project manager, I try to uphold the principles of servant leadership by supporting the team’s needs.

In my quest to continually find new and better ways to serve the team, I recently found Larry C. Spears’ article Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. In it, he identifies ten characteristics of a servant leader, derived from Greenleaf’s work. Not surprisingly, “awareness” is among the list. Spears states:

General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power and values. It leads itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.

The practice of being aware, along with the other principles of servant leadership and agile, excite me about my profession. Learning, growing and exploring ways to best support the team is a never ending journey, and I have been fortunate enough at Aware Web Solutions to find an environment which nurtures this passion, both in knowledge and in application.

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