Agile Leadership

by Sari van Poelje

Agile Leadership

When I started working at KLM in my first ever job as a team leader I made every mistake I see beginning leaders make. I did the work, instead of helping others to do it. I told people what to do and how to do it, instead of focussing on purpose and main goals. I thought I knew the answers, instead of sticking to the right questions.

Studies of leadership since the 1940s have focused on two main dimensions of leadership: task oriented and relationship oriented leadership (Boje 2000). This later evolved into other perspectives focussed on leadership traits, situational leadership, transactional and transformational leadership (Mann, R. D. (1959), Hersey & Blanchard, 1998, Vroom & Jago, 1988). As a result of this research leadership has often been defined as:

  1. Having the position of a leader and/or,
  2. The ability to lead a group of people in a common task.

Consequently a lot of publications focus on the structural role and tasks of leadership or on the relational ability of leaders. Though this research gave us a good idea of what leaders should do and how they should do it, they didn’t take into account the rapid changes we face today.

However, things have changed over the last eighty years. We live in an accelerating turbulent world. Increasing complexity, drastically shortened production cycles and lack of resources is forcing us to come up with new answers. Within leadership there are different challenges that require new answers:

  1. The complexity and speed of change is such that it the demands on leaders are rapidly outdistancing the capabilities of any single person. How can we shift from an individual leadership to a team leadership focus?
  2. The boundaries of control are shifting. Where before leadership was focused on distributing resources within the organization, nowadays a lot of the resources for production are outsourced in a network, and outside of direct control of the leaders. How can we shift from a focus on direct supervision to a focus on leading virtual networks?
  3. The basis of power is shifting. Where before the most experienced leader rose to the top, nowadays there is a shift towards autonomous workers, where innovative ideas count for more than experience. How can we shift from a focus on sustainable production to a focus on anticipation and innovation?

These challenges indicate a need to shift to a more interdependent and purposeful form of leadership to deal with today’s turbulence. Leaders today should be focussing more on creating leadership teams, virtual networks and innovation. The question is: what concepts and tools can we offer to enable this shift?

Agile leadership is characterized by:

  • Communicating purpose
  • Creating structure
  • Cooperating in teams

“Changing the permeability of boundaries, as market and business shifts demand is the essence of an agile structure.”

Radical Agile Transformation Exercise

With a small team consider the following questions:

  1. Do we know why we do what we do?
  2. Do we know our place in the system?
  3. Are we open to cooperating cross functionally?
  4. Do we have an all for one and one for all culture?

Bibliography: References & links

Mann, R. D. (1959), Hersey & Blanchard, 1998, Vroom & Jago, 1988

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Sari van PoeljeSari van Poelje has 30 years experience of innovation on the interface of leadership and organizational development, executive coaching and transactional analysis both as a director within several multinationals and as an international consultant. Specialization in creating agile leadership teams and business innovation! She is the author of numerous articles and books on leadership and change.

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