3 Traits Great Agile Leaders Display (Plus 1 Factor That Doesn’t Matter at All)

Recently I was asked to host a webinar about different styles of agile leadership. We had three incredible speakers: Brad Swanson, Sabine Canditt and Judith W Umlas. Each brought their unique views to the discussion regarding leadership, especially within the context of what the world needs from today's agile leaders. You can catch a recording of the session here

Despite my role as Chief Product Owner for Scrum Alliance, I don’t consider myself any type of thought leader in the agile leadership space. I am hesitant at my age to claim expertise in anything. I’ve learned through the years that, on most things, we all still have so much to learn. The webinar did get me thinking, though, about my own style as a leader and the differing styles of those I’ve admired as leaders.

Trait #1: Agile Leaders Inspire Courage

Great leaders inspire others through both their words and their actions. They paint a vivid picture of a vivid future and are willing to roll up their sleeves to make it happen, side by side with their teams. Great agile leaders go first, whether they’re charging into unknown territory or taking a necessary pay cut. Agile leaders take full responsibility when things go wrong and give all the credit to the teams when things go right. These leaders are the ones out front, taking on the fire of angry customers and frustrated Boards. They don’t ask anyone to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. Their people are willing to take risks because they see a leader who is willing to stand between them and danger. 

When I think of courageous leaders, I think about fictional characters like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings or Black Panther in the Avengers series. Both were brave warrior leaders who faced battles by painting a vision of success for their people and then stepping out in front to lead the charge. I also think of real-life leaders like Malala Yousafzai, co-founder of Malala Fund, who despite the trials she has endured, continues to advocate for “a world where every girl can learn and lead.” 

Trait #2: Agile Leaders Are Curious Listeners

Agile leaders are intelligent, experienced, and knowledgeable about their product and their customer. Agile leaders are also smart enough to know they cannot possibly have all the answers, so they build and empower smart teams who challenge that leader’s assumptions and put forth brilliant ideas of their own. Leaders listen. They’re curious. They invest in intriguing ideas and encourage mistakes in the name of innovation. 

Leaders listen. They’re curious. They invest in intriguing ideas and encourage mistakes in the name of innovation. 

There’s an old saying: “You can measure a person by the company they keep.” Similarly, you can measure a leader by the followers they attract. Do they surround themselves with people that can challenge them, and do? Are the people around them people of deep character and conviction? Or are they simply “Yes people”?  When trying to assess how well someone is leading, look at the followers. 

Agile leaders know that it doesn’t matter how smart or talented or right you are, if no one follows your lead, you won’t get very far. As one of my favorite leaders, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, put it, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Trait #3: Agile Leaders Serve and Care for Their Teams

Agile leaders know that if their employees are engaged and making an impact, the organization will be successful. That’s why these leaders do all in their power to create an environment where success can happen. They encourage work/life balance, and model the behavior themselves by taking PTO and taking care not to contact people about work outside of work hours (unless it’s truly an emergency). Agile leaders clear any obstacles that stand in the team’s way, whether it’s an outdated policy, a lack of capacity, or an impatient stakeholder. They are vulnerable and transparent, so their teams trust that they can be honest in their struggles as well. In short, they do whatever is needed for their teams to succeed.

It’s not your position that matters. It’s how you position yourself that makes the difference.

My favorite example of a servant leader is Samwise Gamgee (from Lord of the Rings). His pledge and his promise was to ensure that Frodo’s mission (to return the ring to Mt. Doom and destroy it) was a success. Sam made meals, sung songs, slayed giant spiders, faced down orcs, and more—all to ensure that Frodo could complete his mission. And toward the end, when the ring grew too heavy and Frodo could not go on, Sam carried Frodo (and the ring he wore) up the mountain himself. 

1 Irrelevant Trait: Being a Boss Doesn’t Make You a Leader

You can be a leader without being anyone’s boss. And you can be someone’s boss and not be much of a leader at all. It’s not your position that matters. It’s how you position yourself that makes the difference. Agile leadership isn’t a simple formula. It's a lifetime of sensing and responding to those around you, and a constant quest for how to improve. I strive (and sometimes fall short) every day to be the kind of leader that inspires by example, surrounds themselves with brilliant people, and moves mountains to help those people succeed. 

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