Leadership Styles

Leadership Styles

Leadership style has a direct impact on an organization’s ability to adopt and sustain Agile.  Some leadership styles are more supportive and others evoke more of response that is epitomized by locking feral cats and dogs in a room (nobody wins). In a previous entry we reviewed four common leadership styles; six additional styles include:

Laissez-Faire Leadership

A laissez-faire leader is hands-off and allows group members to make the decisions. The leader using this form of leadership will monitor what is being done and will communicate with the team on a regular basis. For this form of leadership to work team members need to be experienced, have discipline and be self-starters. Mature Agile teams can exist under laissez-faire leaders; however immature Agile teams will not receive sufficient leadership and control.

People-Oriented Leadership or Relations-Oriented Leadership

People/Relationship-oriented leadership is focused on organizing, supporting and developing the people on the leader’s team. The focus on the needs of the team is generally supportive of Agile practices. If this form of leadership is taken to extreme it can cause the leader and team to lose focus on the team’s goals.

Servant Leadership

The servant leader works to empower and serve the people s/he leads. Empowerment on an Agile team is removing impediments and coaching the team so it performs to its capability using Agile practices. Servant leadership is considered the most supportive of implementing and fostering Agile teams.  As we have noted there are downsides to servant leadership; however, most problems with servant leadership stem an over focus or mismatch of goals or conflict of vision. If these excesses are controlled servant leadership is an excellent match for Agile.

Task-Oriented Leadership

Task-oriented leaders focus on one thing: getting the job done.  This form of leadership can be perceived as autocratic.  Task-oriented leaders define work, roles and then assign the work. All of the versions of Agile that embrace the principles in the Agile Manifesto are structured around the premise that the team is motivated and can self-organize to address the work they have committed to delivering.  Task-oriented leadership is at odds with Agile principles. When this form of leadership is prevalent, Agile will have a tough time taking root in this environment, even though this form of leadership can be useful in extreme emergencies.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is built on the premise that team members agree to obey their leader totally when they take a job. Bonded, indentured servitude comes to mind when considering this form of leadership. For this fealty, team members are paid.  During my high school years, I worked in a department store warehouse.  I observed the foremen using this type of leadership “on” most of my fellow workers. As the high school kid, I tended to be treated differently floating between the two groups. This type of leadership caused both sides act out against the other. This form of leadership will stifle Agile and rarely has any long-term value. 

Transformational Leadership

A transformation leader inspires his (or her) team based on a shared vision of the future. This type of leader communicates (early and often) and they lead with enthusiasm, even though they tend to delegate responsibility throughout the team.  This form of leadership provides vision and then supports that vision by empowers others around them. This form of leadership is perfect for establishing Agile but in the long run is difficult to sustain the same levels of passion for a single transactional event.

There is no single perfect leadership style.  Often different leadership styles are used depending on context.  Highly Agile organizations often mix servant leadership styles with transformational.  The transformational style being used to tackle major changes within the organization while the day-to-day leadership style is more akin to servant leadership.  Even organizations with highly participative leadership styles may adopt more autocratic task-leadership styles in periods of great crisis in which consensus would take too long to develop. What is different from less mature or less participative organizations is that you very quickly retreat from this style when the crisis passes and they generally don’t feel good about the event. In order to get a sense how styles shift, ask a few people in that organization to tell you a story about the last crisis the team was involved in and then listen to the answer.  The stories that are told about major events are often very enlightening.

As a reminder, a comparison of the ten leadership styles review is shown above. The styles with the most filled in Harvey Balls are typically the most conducive to adopting and staying Agile.

The prevalent leadership style of an organization can impact both the ability to adopt Agile and then the ability to sustain Agile.  Autocratic, task-oriented and transactional leadership styles are as close to anti-Agile as can be.  While Agile might exist in protected pockets in organizations that these styles are prevalent they will not prosper. Instead, consider adopting kanban or Scrumban without the Agile principles in these environments and then slowly sell change by exposing bottlenecks and constraints.