What Characteristics Are Needed to Lead an Agile Transformation?

Anthony Mersino
October 30, 2015
I’ve been preparing to teach a couple of courses on leadership in an Agile environment and taking stock of those characteristics that make Agile Leaders successful. Reflecting on great Agile leaders that I know, a few key leadership traits that come to mind are as follows.
  • Ownership - Great leaders take personal responsibility for the outcomes and results they create.  They don’t blame others when things don’t go their way, they reflect on it, learn from their experience, and try again.  They see themselves as the authors of their experience.
  • Humility - Great leaders are also open to feedback.  They take in criticism and rather than defend, they demonstrate curiousity and openess. 
  • Empathetic Listeners - Agile leaders tend to be great listeners who show empathy toward others.  They don’t cut others off or interrupt.  They make others feel valued.  They show that they are able to empathize and put themselves into the shoes of others.  They show that they genuinely care about people.  
  • Trust - The best Agile leaders empower and then trust the people that they lead.  This particular characteristic ties directly to one of my favorite agile principles:

"Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and the support they need, and trust them to get the job done"

There is one leadership antipattern that runs counter to this particular leadership trait and the Agile principle and that is having a command and control leadership style.  I have to admit that I attribute much of my success in leading large-scale IT projects and programs to my strong command and control approach.  My lack of trust manifested itself as a need to control all aspects of the projects including the people.  
 
What about you, are you a command and control leader?  Let's dive in to the following questions to quickly measure your level of command and controlism.  As you read each question, decide if you could answer each with a yes or a no.
  1. Do you distrust people, and feel that you need to monitor them so that they don’t slack off?
  2. Do you believe that you generally know what is best, and willingly offer solutions and advice to the team?
  3. Do you tend to interject yourself into problem solving, even when you are not invited to get involved?
  4. Do you try to make the team results conform to your preconceived ideas of what the results should be?
  5. Do you try to directly or indirectly control things? Do you feel uncomfortable when others are in control, and you are not?
  6. Do you feel threatened by the idea that the team may operate fine without you?
  7. Do you feel the need to be involved in all the details and decisions to reduce the risk of the project failing or having a misstep?
  8. Do you feel solely and personally responsible for the success and failure of the teams you lead?
So how did you do?  If you scored three or fewer Yes responses, congratulations, you are doing quite well.  If you scored four to six Yes responses, you are doing well but could be doing better.  And if you had 7 or 8 yes responses, well, empowering and trusting your team is going to be difficult.
 
Are there other questions that should be of this litmus test?  Are there other leadership antipatterns that leaders of Agile Transformations need to be aware of?  I'd love to hear from you.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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