How does an organization’s leadership style affect the adoption of Agile. The focus of the question oft-times begins as a question about teams, which I generally steer to a discussion of the tendency of the organization or at least the senior leadership. The organization’s leadership culture (usually the same as the senior leaders’) are a leading indicator of whether Agile can take root and grow. There are numerous leadership styles, some are more conducive to adopting and keeping organizations Agile. If we consider ten of the more prevalent leadership styles, there are some that are conducive to Agile and some that are downright hostile.   

The styles with the most filled in Harvey Balls are typically the most conducive to adopting and sustaining Agile.

Leadership Styles

Leadership Styles

The worst of the bunch is autocratic leadership. It tends to follow a path that can be best charted as ‘my way or the highway,’ which is an anathema to self-organization and the flexible structure of Agile.  Alternately democratic/participative, servant and transformational leadership tend to be the best of the bunch because they clash less with overall agile values.

A more in-depth evaluation of the first four follows.

Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership is a form of leadership in which a leader exerts high levels of power over his or her employees or team members. Team members (loosely used) are given few opportunities to make suggestions or decisions even in scenarios where it would be advantageous to the team or organization for making suggestions. (Listen to Gene Hughson SPaMCAST 430 describe in more detail why this form of leadership is dangerous.) Agile principles are designed to empower the team to make decisions and to foster collaboration.  Agile principles will always be at odds with autocratic leadership.  In this environment Agile generally, will not flourish and will only take hold in areas that are cut off from autocratic managers.

Bureaucratic Leadership

Bureaucratic leaders explicitly follow the book or the process. This style of work makes sense in some specific areas, for example pilots reviewing the preflight checklist or handling of hazardous chemicals. However, in most cases developing, enhancing and maintain software does not fall into this category.  I use the qualifier, “most” in a cautious manner, there are lifecycle activities that can be improved by some level bureaucratic management. For example, the enforcement of code check-in before implementation, safety and security testing of software and other operational activities (many of these activities can and should be automated to enforce the process).  In most cases, bureaucratic leadership will smother innovation. Implementing concepts such as backlogs with their emergent qualities or continuous re-planning will be difficult under bureaucratic leadership.  Bureaucratic leadership is bad for Agile, but not quite as bad as autocratic leadership.

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership injects huge doses of enthusiasm into his or her team and is very energetic in driving others forward. If the leader is committed to Agile then this form of leadership is decidedly a plus (thus the mostly filled in Harvey Ball).  The downside of this style is that charismatic leadership tends to foster a cult of personality in which the leader and his or her passions are more important than the team. Further, this form of leadership puts programs, such as an Agile transformation, at risk when the leader changes position.  When the leader leaves, the program can no longer draw on the charisma for energy.  I have seen programs of all types falter when the charismatic leader that championed and lead the implementation is promoted or takes a position outside of the organization.  As a change agent, use this type of leadership to your advantage but recognize the risk and develop other leaders to fill the gap when the leader moves on.

Democratic Leadership or Participative Leadership

Democratic/participative leadership invites other members of the team to contribute to the decision-making process. This form of leadership recognizes that team members bring knowledge, expertise and other points-of-view to the decision-making process. Team members are empowered, therefore they are motivated to work toward the team’s goals. This form of leadership is very conducive to adopting and embracing the Agile principles.  The downside of this type of leadership is that when a crisis occurs the decision-making process can be slower than autocratic forms of leadership.

Almost every organization wants to adopt or perhaps experiment with Agile.  Agile principles and many of the common leadership practices aren’t compatible.  A number of years ago I observed a leader that pushed his teams to adopt Agile (Scrumban in this case), only to turn up every morning at stand-up meetings to assign tasks to each person on each team.  The problem was not that he and the teams did not understand Agile but rather his management style was at odds the how Agile really works.

Next  – The Next Six Leadership Styles