Cookie Consent by Free Privacy Policy Generator website Kirsten Schrick – Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set
Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

The cur­rent dynam­ics of devel­op­ments affect all indus­tries and com­pa­nies. How can we ade­quate­ly deal with such volatil­i­ty? The agile” approach is seen as an answer to this ques­tion. But what exact­ly is agile and what defines agile leadership?

In the search for the right answers, to meet all the con­stant­ly chang­ing demands of our time, agili­ty is tout­ed as a man­age­ment mir­a­cle cure. Man­agers, projects and entire orga­ni­za­tions are now sup­posed to become agile. Many con­cepts for man­ag­ing an orga­ni­za­tion have come and gone, but Agile Lead­er­ship” not only seems to hold its ground, but even gain in pop­u­lar­i­ty. What are the dri­ving fac­tors? Has­n’t the world always been a dynam­ic place with exoge­nous shocks, trend rever­sals and crises?

The VUCA world

A term from US mil­i­tary jar­gon summed up the chal­lenges of our time — VUCA. No won­der, then, that this acronym quick­ly gained a foothold in the busi­ness world as well, because hard­ly any oth­er term sum­ma­rizes the cur­rent inten­si­fi­ca­tion of change so pre­cise­ly and cov­ers the con­tin­u­ous­ly observ­able increase in inten­si­ty, accel­er­a­tion and simultaneity.

Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

As much as we like to sim­pli­fy the sit­u­a­tion through struc­tures, mod­els or tech­nol­o­gy and reduce the vari­ables to a man­age­able lev­el, the pre­vi­ous ratio alone is no longer suf­fi­cient to get a grip on the VUCA fac­tors in an accel­er­at­ed and con­densed con­text. For quite some time now, it is no longer about intel­lec­tu­al mas­tery, but rather about adap­tiv­i­ty and, in this con­text, also about con­scious­ly deal­ing with the emo­tion­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of the VUCA era. 

The ways to VUCA

  • Exec­u­tives and man­agers have to act dif­fer­ent­ly in this world.
  • In this new world you are chal­lenged as liv­ing, authen­tic indi­vid­u­als and personalities. 
  • Roles such as guide, inspir­er, host, care tak­er or enabler are increas­ing­ly com­ing to the fore.
Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

What does agili­ty mean in a cor­po­rate context?

To make an orga­ni­za­tion adapt­able, pre­vi­ous pat­terns of thought and action must be scru­ti­nized and adapt­ed. This is where agili­ty comes into play. But what does this term mean in con­nec­tion with cor­po­rate man­age­ment? Have a look here at select­ed definitions:

Agili­ty is the abil­i­ty of an orga­ni­za­tion to act flex­i­bly, proac­tive­ly, adapt­ably and with ini­tia­tive in times of change and uncertainty.”

(Onpul­sion Wirtschaftslexikon)

(…) an effec­tive inte­gra­tion of response abil­i­ty and knowl­edge man­age­ment in order to rapid­ly, effi­cient­ly and accu­rate­ly adapt to any unex­pect­ed (or unpre­dictable) change in both proac­tive and reac­tive business/​cus­tomer needs and oppor­tu­ni­ties with­out com­pro­mis­ing with the cost or the qual­i­ty of the product/​process.”

(Gan­gu­ly, Nilchi­a­nia & Farr, 2009)

Imple­men­ta­tion of the quick and adap­tive reac­tion to unfore­see­able envi­ron­men­tal changes described here requires a new man­age­ment under­stand­ing. Rigid pow­er struc­tures, micro­man­age­ment and com­pa­ny process­es that can be planned lin­ear­ly must give way to new forms of cooperation. 

Agile Man­i­festo (2001)

We’re find­ing bet­ter ways to devel­op soft­ware by doing it our­selves and help­ing oth­ers do it. Through this activ­i­ty we have learned to appreciate:

  • Indi­vid­u­als and inter­ac­tions more than process­es and tools
  • Func­tion­ing soft­ware more than com­pre­hen­sive documentation
  • Coop­er­a­tion with the cus­tomer more than con­tract negotiations
  • Respond­ing to change more than fol­low­ing a plan

That means that, although we find the val­ues on the right-hand side impor­tant, we val­ue the ones on the left-hand side higher.”

While both sides of the inequa­tions have absolute impor­tance and rel­e­vance for a com­pa­ny, agile lead­er­ship attach­es greater impor­tance to the val­ues​on the left in order to be able to sur­vive suc­cess­ful­ly in the VUCA world.

It is already clear from this that the imple­men­ta­tion of true agili­ty and agile lead­er­ship is no walk in the park. Some of the larg­er cor­po­ra­tions still find it dif­fi­cult, even after many years, to under­stand agile lead­er­ship as a new mind­set, a holis­tic approach. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, such expe­ri­ences cause the mere men­tion of an agile way of work­ing to trig­ger feel­ings of resent­ment in some places.

Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

Agili­ty — an emp­ty phrase?

Agili­ty is a mis­un­der­stood term in many com­pa­nies today. The approach is often reduced to the method­ol­o­gy. For exam­ple, scrum” is equat­ed with agili­ty. Process changes are con­sid­ered from the point of view of effi­cien­cy, where­as agile struc­tures actu­al­ly aim at increas­ing effec­tive­ness.

Accord­ing­ly, agile lead­er­ship does not just mean demand­ing high­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty from employ­ees, but also enabling them to work self-respon­si­bly, on their own author­i­ty. Con­fi­dence is the basis for agile coop­er­a­tion. It is pre­cise­ly that con­fi­dence in the cre­ativ­i­ty of employ­ees that is nec­es­sary for the required shift in respon­si­bil­i­ty. A com­pa­ny can use the chal­lenges of our time to grow organ­i­cal­ly in dif­fer­ent dimen­sions. To this end, one must make room and cre­ate a scope for deci­sion-mak­ing and action. An adap­tive, fast and espe­cial­ly cre­ative reac­tion is unlike­ly to come in a nar­row, restric­tive envi­ron­ment at the push of a button.

How can the tran­si­tion to agile action suc­ceed in a com­pa­ny? What are the require­ments for lead­er­ship skills in an agile environment?

Agile Leadership - a Mind set, not a Tool set

Agile lead­er­ship

Our brain shows us the best role mod­el for tru­ly agile lead­er­ship. It adapts to new cir­cum­stances in a flash and works coop­er­a­tive­ly instead of com­pet­i­tive­ly. The amyg­dala is not more impor­tant than the frontal lobe and it is not so much the num­ber of nerve cells in an area that mat­ters, but the way they are inter­con­nect­ed. Any­one who has ever trained ath­let­ic move­ment sequences knows how impor­tant the right neur­al con­nec­tion is in order to trig­ger a quick reac­tion to a sit­u­a­tion. The sit­u­a­tions that will arise are impos­si­ble to pre­dict. But we can train the con­nec­tions. If a chal­lenge then occurs spon­ta­neous­ly, the brain orga­nizes itself flex­i­bly and reacts indi­vid­u­al­ly to the sit­u­a­tion at hand. 

So cer­tain qual­i­ties can cre­ate the right frame­work for agile behavior:

  • Improved com­pe­tence: This includes empow­er­ing employ­ees to self-respon­si­bly meet the chal­lenges they face. This is most­ly the result of long-term, proac­tive per­son­nel devel­op­ment paired with a plau­si­ble and emo­tion­al­ly bind­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion about the com­pa­ny’s strate­gic vision.
  • Speed: A quick response, not just to mar­ket changes but also to employ­ee con­cerns, as well as con­sis­tent, time­ly feed­back are of crit­i­cal importance.
  • Flex­i­bil­i­ty: Open­ness to sug­ges­tions for change at all lev­els and process­es. The basis for this is the per­ma­nent ques­tion­ing of the sta­tus quo. This is how uncon­ven­tion­al solu­tions become pos­si­ble in the first place.
  • Respon­sive­ness: To be able to react quick­ly to iden­ti­fied changes, it is nec­es­sary to be able to act even in sit­u­a­tions of uncer­tain­ty. Respon­sive­ness is most­ly the result of the pre­vi­ous qual­i­ties and requires trust, paired with the pro­vi­sion of nec­es­sary skills at all levels.

The man­ag­er also rein­vents him­self in this con­struct and makes adap­ta­tions to his own behav­ior. You have to learn to real­ly meet the employ­ees at eye lev­el, to take them seri­ous­ly and cul­ti­vate the rela­tion­ship lev­el. The key­words are more free­dom of choice and more empowerment.

Leave the top-down” point of view behind

Agile approach­es such as exper­i­men­ta­tion, the devel­op­ment of pro­to­types, ret­ro­spec­tives or the stand-up” meet­ings will fiz­zle out if the frame­work does not explic­it­ly encour­age inde­pen­dent and self-respon­si­ble work. Joint plan­ning is as much a part of the agile reper­toire as open com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, mutu­al feedback. 

Any­one who demands agili­ty as a man­ag­er has to leave the top-down” view behind and share nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion with­out reser­va­tion, exem­pli­fy an open feed­back cul­ture and meet employ­ees on an equal foot­ing. This will help to cre­ate spaces for the devel­op­ment of cre­ativ­i­ty, the foun­da­tion for fast and ade­quate adap­ta­tion to con­stant­ly chang­ing frame­work con­di­tions. Trust, con­fi­dence and respon­si­bil­i­ty can find their way through the hier­ar­chy and even trans­form it in the long run.

Agili­ty as an inter­nal trans­for­ma­tion force

Cur­rent trans­for­ma­tion projects such as agile lead­er­ship and New Work repeat­ed­ly empha­size the shift of respon­si­bil­i­ty, the trust in employ­ees and open, bidi­rec­tion­al feed­back. If all these things are imple­ment­ed con­sis­tent­ly, an orga­ni­za­tion can grad­u­al­ly devel­op in the direc­tion of a socioc­ra­cy or a holocracy. 

These orga­ni­za­tion forms are char­ac­ter­ized by their con­sis­tent self-orga­ni­za­tion. The mem­bers of an orga­ni­za­tion devel­op shared respon­si­bil­i­ty for their com­pa­ny. A col­lec­tive intel­li­gence aris­es that can hold unimag­ined cre­ative poten­tial for find­ing solutions.

Dynam­ic steer­ing and con­trol replaces the pre­vi­ous approach of strate­gic plan­ning. In the con­text of self-real­iza­tion, the indi­vid­ual could merge into a col­lec­tive we” and hier­ar­chi­cal posi­tions give way to a new under­stand­ing of roles. What sounds like a vision of the future is already a com­mon prac­tice in some pio­neer­ing com­pa­nies and shows how the fear-based per­fec­tion­ism of a rigid orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture can trans­form into a prag­mat­ic, adap­tive and indeed agile solution.

Self check:

  • What do I con­sid­er the great­est advan­tage of agility?
  • What is the dark side” of agility?
  • When did I already expe­ri­ence agili­ty in my life?
  • What does agili­ty need so that it can grow?
  • What or who is spoil­ing my agility?
  • How much do I rely on trust and con­fi­dence with my employ­ees, how much on control?
  • How clear is it to me why I can­not (yet) trust my employees?
  • How strong­ly do I cul­ti­vate an open cul­ture with mutu­al feed­back? Do I pro­vide feed­back more than once a year?
  • How do I react to changes in my industry? 
  • How do I use the poten­tial of my employ­ees to find solu­tions, or am I the one giv­ing the reac­tion to a problem?
  • How hon­est­ly do I tol­er­ate mis­takes made by my employ­ees and con­sid­er them as oppor­tu­ni­ties for their fur­ther development?


Fred­er­ic Laloux

  • Rein­vent­ing Orga­ni­za­tions visuell: Ein illus­tri­ert­er Leit­faden sinns­tif­ten­der For­men der Zusam­me­nar­beit, Vahlen Ver­lag (Decem­ber 152016)

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