Being a progressive agile leader

John Michaelides Agile coaching, Thought leadership

Progressive leaders exist to serve their people, not run them.

High-performing agile teams need progressive leaders to nurture and support them if they’re going to excel and delight. How do you know if you’re a progressive leader – or if your leaders are? What qualities and principles do progressive leaders embody and follow?

As Max de Pree said:

“The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Great leaders provide a rich, appealing vision and direction, not just instruction. They aren’t simply administrators – they drive things by creating a secure and free environment in which people can excel. They make sure everyone is always clear on what reality and success looks like.

They are servants to the needs of the team, not the other way around.

Beginning to serve needs

Servant leadership begins with the right combination of three traits:

Empowerment

While leaders provide vision and direction, they should still be guided by their teams and afford them as much space to operate as possible. People thrive on creative challenges. Avoid micromanaging at all costs as it’s both demoralising and puts the sole chance of success on the micro-manager.

Balance

This is about knowing when to intervene. It’s showing judgement and learning to read situations. Quiet persuasion through strong empathy is often the call of the day. Similarly, there are situations where strong intervention is required either with team members or with external parties (like clients or other collaborators).

Appropriate action

All interventions will have some impact. Some will disrupt the balance, others will strengthen it. Remember that strong intervention has maximum effect when you walk softly, so keep your powder dry until it’s needed.


Whatever you do, as a leader you must always act in the interests of the team and not yourself. It’s important to note that the interests of the business and those of the team are not always the same and sometimes you’ll have to make a difficult choice.

Qualities and expectations

What else should people expect from their leaders? How should they expect them to act? There are a few key qualities that make the foundations of a great servant leader:

Trusting

Great leaders understand the talent they’ve nurtured and supported will only thrive on the freedom to meet challenges in the way they want to tackle them. A progressive leader neither micromanages nor acts randomly from left-field, wading in whenever they see fit.

Challenging

Constructive and supportive challenge is a bedrock of professional growth. A good leader guides people through critical thinking without criticising and helps them understand if they’re on the right track.

From time to time, when things go wrong, a supportive leader helps their people through the learning opportunity. They will create a safe environment for investigation and introspection, free from blame or fear.

Open

Ever felt you could have done something different if you’d had the full picture? Ever felt you could have contributed if only you’d known?

Poor leaders are notorious for hoarding information and keeping people in the dark. In an agile environment where information and context are so central to the feedback and iteration cycle, the impact of this destructive behaviour is magnified. Open leaders share their challenges, encourage broad input and build motivation and morale by involving everyone equally and shutting no one out.

Honest

Honesty in the leader’s context can be thought of as the mirror of their own trusting. An honest leader gives feedback that can be relied upon and creates confidence and security that the context they’re creating is true. In this environment, people can take strength from their leader and focus on bringing their skills to their own challenges.

Patient

Patience is not about letting people do work in whatever time they feel. The patient leader understands that individuals adjust to new challenges and situations in their own time. They understand that new situations are cloaked in natural fear and uncertainty and they support their people calmly, with an appreciation of the time they need to adapt.

Enabling

Bringing all these leadership behaviours together creates a bold and permissive environment for people to flourish and be their best.

The progressive, successful environment

Progressive and supportive leaders provide the freedom and security to innovate and excel. In particular, people will:

  • learn and discover
  • innovate
  • take risks
  • question and challenge
  • contribute
  • deliver and do the right thing

Providing these freedoms and the feeling of security is a crucial to the role of the leader. I’ll be taking a deeper look at how important these two qualities in particular are in a future blog post. Keep a lookout and share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter at @agilesphere.