Agile Leadership: Methodology Ain’t Enough

A lot of people say you can’t be a good software manager without really understanding software development. What behaviors do we want in our agile leaders?But, let’s face it, people who understand software development are a dime a dozen in our industry. What we really need are people who understand leadership & management. I mean… you know the drill – when was the last time a software project failed for technical reasons?

And so, it was very cool to hear David Spann share his research on Finding and Developing Agile Leader’s at last week’s ScrumClub.

It’s simply not enough to know the latest agile practices. In order for agile projects to succeed, they need leaders who exhibit agile behaviors and, here’s a hint – being a technical guru ain’t one of them.

Now, I don’t want to mislead – David isn’t saying agile leaders don’t have to know anything about software development. What he is saying is that the success criteria for leading agile teams is dependent on the leader’s beliefs and behaviors. That is, how they think and act is  just as – if not more – important than what they know.


CheckDavid identified 5 underlying beliefs that a successful agile leader should hold.
How many of these do you hold? How many does your manager?

1. A group of well intentioned, skilled people will make a better decision through consensus then I can on my own.

2. Five or more people with a single, clear purpose can (and often do!) change the world.

3. Asking the right questions will always create better outcomes then making a series of well-crafted statements.

4. The leadership role is about creating a great environment in which others can succeed.

5. Trust is the foundational component of any relationship and it must be tended to with care, integrity and humility.


David identified the behaviors that make agile leaders successful and from that came two very interesting observations:

The behaviors that make agile leaders successful are, largely, the same behaviors that make Facilitators successful.

The behaviors that cause agile leaders to fail are, largely, the same behaviors we seek when hiring Project Managers.

In the Fight Between Good and Evil...

Behaviors We Want in our Agile Leaders

Strategic. Agile is very pragmatic, with a strong emphasis on the here & now. YAGNI, defer decisions, no Big Up Front anything. And so, it’s interesting to see strategic, “taking a long range approach,” as a key success criteria for agile leaders. I think this underscores the importance of having a clear vision for the team to rally around, and the need for our leaders to be thinking ahead to make sure that we’re not just moving forward – but moving in the right direction.

Tactical. At the same time, agile is very pragmatic, delivery focused. So our leaders need to emphasize the importance of continuously delivering value by focusing on “short-range, hands-on, practical strategies.”

Innovative. We are out there, every day, responding to change, creating things no one has before. Our leaders should be open to new ideas, willing to take risks, and comfortable with agile’s level of change.

Excitement. We want our leaders to be passionate! To have excitement and energy and enthusiasm, and to pass that passion on to the team and make it felt by all who come in contact with it.

Communication. Agile is about bringing people together to produce more than they could individually. Those 5 people with a clear purpose out there changing the world. This requires communication, “stating clearly what you want and expect… clearly expressing your thoughts and ideas; maintaining a precise and constant flow of information.”

Consensual. Agile teams are about respect. Leaders value their team’s ideas and opinions and demonstrate this by using their position to help the team gain consensus on how to proceed rather than just telling them what to do.

Delegation. Agile teams are about trust. Leaders encourage this by enlisting team member’s strengths to achieve results and giving the team autonomy to make their own judgments about the best way to meet objectives.

Empathy. Agile leaders empathize with and support their team members.

Behaviors that Hurt Agile Teams

Authority. Leaders who are – and believe others should be – deferential to authority, tend to be liabilities on agile teams. Agile teams need to be continuously on the look out for new and better ways to do things and a great way to kill that that is by saying “nope, we don’t allow new ideas unless they come from/are approved by the guy at the top.”

Structuring. The Plan-Driven Manager who spends weeks devising the “perfect plan” and the rest of the project aligning everything back to that is in direct opposition to the team’s agility. Per the manifesto, agile teams value responding to change over following a plan.

Conservative. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, says the conservative leader, while agile says, “what can we do better?”

Technical. While some technical understanding is good, being an expert is not only unnecessary but, as we’ve all seen, can be detrimental. We need our leaders helping us with communication and vision and supporting us to get the work done, not busy
doing it all – or coming up with all the answers – themselves.

When we look for managers in our organizations, what kinds of traits do we look for?

Managers should have Authority, right? And, just look at the PMP – you know, the thing that tells us how to manage projects – about 90% of it’s Body of Knowledge is around planning, so Structuring must be important too. Conservative? Sure, old white guys in suits, right? 😉  And technical… well, we all know what role the techies get promoted to when they do a good job.

What about YOU: Which beliefs and behaviors do you see in your own agile leaders? What about in yourself?

Learn more in David Spann’s articles on his research into Agile Management Behaviors:  ScrumClub
» Agile Management Behaviors: What to Look For and Develop
» The Facilitative Mind of Agile

New! See Patrick Wilson Welsh’s response: Agile Team Lead : Useful New Role?  which takes this idea to the next level, and join in the conversation!


10 responses to “Agile Leadership: Methodology Ain’t Enough”

  1. Robert Dempsey Avatar
    Robert Dempsey

    <span style="font-family: Times; ">
    <p>Great post Abby. One item I would add to the list of behaviors we want, is political will. What I mean by that is the willingness to stand up for the team and take the hits as needed. If a team cannot trust their leader to defend them then they will lose all faith. This also allows for the team to try new things without feeling that they'll be slammed by some manager for "wasting time" when what they are really doing is attempting to improve things or do things better.

  2. Bryan Beecham Avatar
    Bryan Beecham

    Great read.  I think I score well but this gives me some things to look for as an Agile leader for improvement.

  3. Mark Levison Avatar
    Mark Levison

    Abby – good food for thought. I liked it so much I included in this week's Agile Quick Links:

  4. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Thanks, Robert!  And yes indeed to political will and allowing the team to try things out.  I don't know if you saw, Patrick Wilson Welsh has continued this discussion on his blog: and one of the things he mentions that I really like that I think is related to this is:

    "<span style=" color: #ced5dd; line-height: 18px; ">Helps continuously build trust and respect between the team and its stakeholders (in a way that buys more and more freedom to speak up, freedom to experiment, freedom to “fail,” freedom to learn)."</span>

  5. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Let's try that once more in a font that doesn't blend into the background:

    "Helps continuously build trust and respect between the team and its stakeholders (in a way that buys more and more freedom to speak up, freedom to experiment, freedom to “fail,” freedom to learn)." – Patrick Wilson Welsh 

  6. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Thank you!  And you're right, probably people reading my blog already know this stuff so a little preaching to the choir, right?  but +1 for giving people something to think about at least. 😉   Thanks for commenting!

  7. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    w00t!  Thanks, Mark 🙂

  8. Josh Milane Avatar
    Josh Milane


    I had a nice reply but realized too late that by logging in, the form reset. Boo. 😉

    Anyhow, I enjoyed your writing but do find it interesting that what started off as literally a couple bullet points (the Manifesto) becomes obsfucated by productized constructions and the emotional connections to those constructions. The manager needs to be a people person more than a technical person. Is this really that surprising? Not to be contentious, but managers manage. A manager who is technically saavy will be more effective not only in managing, but in adding value to endeavours across the organization and maybe even pitching in when required (kind of like Kanban pull).

    I would suggest that structuring is not bad – but dictums are. False layers and obstructions to communication are. Structure can be something as loose as a team of really talented devs who develop their own unique rythmn. You can't find that structure in the PMBOK, but its a gorgeous one, and one I wish I could deliver with the wave of a wand. Also, in the real world, the suits want to see a .mpp. They just do. This does not mean you have to get all PMPish about it. You can show phases, iterations, even something abstract like "Iteration N+1" as long as it shows what they are looking for, an estimate to "how long and how much?"

    Thanks for this. I did enjoy it.



  9. Josh Milane Avatar
    Josh Milane

    So is pooping. Come on now…

  10. Andrew Avatar

    Hey there Abby
    Loved the post and just in reply to “Thank you! And you’re right, probably people reading my blog already know this stuff so a little preaching to the choir, right? but +1 for giving people something to think about at least.”

    I’m just starting out on the formal (contradiction but you get my meaning) Agile path as a manager / leader (with some development background). The initial reading I’ve done (plus the little check list above) bodes well as a lot of what I have been doing seems to fit in the right box, I just haven’t really seen it or boxed it as “Agile” until now – with the recruitment of some expert Rails developers!

    Question for you – there are loads of articles / books / courses / blogs on Agile and all it’s flavours – if you were to pick a couple as a good starting point, which would they be? (excluding this one of course!)

    PS – from the UK, so many of the cool looking events may prove a bit too expensive to get to!

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