Agile Leadership in Turbulent Business Environments

by Dustin Glaß, Bernd Lukanek, Georg Schwertfeger, Jennifer Schäfer, and Julia Schulz |


In the age of digitization and disruptive change, agility is considered vital for businesses. Managers in particular face radically changed conditions in an agile environment (Rutz, 2017). Agile Leadership is one of the newest leadership methods. Therefore there are not definitions yet which are scientifically proven. Agile Leadership comes from project management especially from the software development (Rutz, 2017) . Agile methods like for instance Scrum are more popular than ever. But nowadays these methods are not only used in software development, but are also used in all possible functions in the company right up to top management (Rigby et al., 2016). One possible definition for an Agile Leader could be:

“Agile Leaders empower their workforce […] enable teams to take ownership of their work and trust them to get their job done […] are responsible for enabling innovations […] provide a stable environment, helping teams focus on the highest priorities.” (MacIntyre, 2017).

Another possible definition of a servant leader, which is quite similar to the one mentioned before. The Project Management Institute states in their Agile Practice Guide, that Servant leadership is the best leadership style for agile projects (PMI, 2017).

“Agile approaches emphasize servant leadership as a way to empower teams. Servant leaderships is the practice of leading through service to the team, by focusing on understanding and addressing the needs and development of them members in order to enable the highest possible team performance.” (PMI, 2017).

Both definitions have the idea that the leader has to empower the teams. Their focus is on the teams in order to help and support them. All in all, the leader creates an agile environment where the teams can work in.


How does Agile Leadership Work?

In between agile teams, leadership should be shared instead of being centralized. In general, the team member with the best knowledge and skills for the actual topic actively takes the leadership for this moment (Moe et al., 2009).

To generally achieve that form of shared leadership in projects, the “formal” leader should use a specific behavior and practice a servant leadership style to empower the team: According to Highsmith (2003) the understanding of the leader role must change from a planner, organizer and controller to a “facilitator who effectively manages the collaboration of team members without stifling their creativity”. The agile leader also has to learn to guide the team with asking questions like “How should we solve the problem?” or “What is your opinion on that?” instead of giving orders (Rigby et al., 2016).

For Scrum, the most popular form of agile projects, the role of the Product Owner and the Scrum Master formally take the leadership in the project and share it with the team members (Moe et al., 2009). Specifically their behaviour and main responsibilities are defined as the following:

The Scrum Master protects the team from external interruptions and errors, helps eliminate problems, improves team productivity and drives “inspect and adapt” cycles. He is a moderator and kind of team leader but not authorized to issue directives. He ensures that agile principles and ideals are understood and respected throughout the organization. Additionally he works with the product owner to maximize the profitability of investment in the product (Gloger, 2016).

The Product Owner communicates a clear vision of the product, defines its relevant characteristics and has to accept the product increment at the end of a sprint. He has to make sure that the team only works at the customer’s actually worthwhile backlog items. Therefore he supports the development team during a sprint by not interrupting the work of the team members and providing them promptly with all necessary information. (Gloger, 2016).


Does Agility Pay?

Since the Agile Leadership style is one of the newest ones and there are only a few empirical studies available yet, it is difficult to prove how effective and efficient it is. Nevertheless, there are practical studies and articles that make recommendations where Agile Leadership is most useful, what kind of skills and abilities an Agile Leader should have and what outcomes are seeked to achieve out of this leadership style. It has to be considered that these facts are in general closely related to the situational factors and outcomes from the Agile Methods in general.

Agile methods and the associated Agile Leadership style are all abouta innovations, therefore agile methods are not useful in daily business operations and processes. As the agile methods evolve from the software development and project management they are especially effective in situations where problems are complex and solutions are not well-known right from the beginning. Moreover product and customer requirements are changing constantly as well as the situation of competition and a close engagement with users is necessary. These aspects as well as the division of work increase better results in these kind of situations than traditional leadership methods (Grote and Goyk 2018, p. 24-33).

To lead in an effective way it is first of all necessary that the leaders consider the mentioned situations and have a different set of abilities. Therefore it is crucial for those leaders to have the ability to learn, adapt and apply themselves in constantly transforming conditions (Cashman, 2013). Furthermore needed abilities can be subdivided into the following five dimensions by Cashman. Mental Agility is the ability to critically think and analyze complex problems and challenges even in the absence of having all information (Cashman, 2013). Moreover to be able to learn just as seek out of experiences from the past and have the interest in making sense of them (Pruitt, 2017). Result Agility means to deliver results in first-time situations and especially inspiring, motivating and building confidence in teams to achieve top results in challenging situations. Change Agility is the interest and enjoyment to experiment and being curious in dealing with discomfort change (Cashman, 2013). People Agility means understanding and relating to other people, the value of different perspectives and surround themselves with a very diverse team (Cashman, 2013; Weller, 2013). Self Awareness is the ability to reflect and know themselves very well and understand their own capabilities and impact on others (Cashman, 2013). Additionally to those five dimensions are the ability to delegate and to take the role as a coach. This means that Agile leaders need to step back, adapt, observe, ask and support rather than control and have the entirely power of decision-making. Therefore showing trust into accomplishing tasks or the willingness to learn by the employees seem to be a critical factor for success (Grote and Goyk 2018, p. 31-32).

The outcomes of Agile Leadership have to be considered in combination with those of Agile Methods in general. A study showed that team effectiveness and self-managed work can be increased by sharing mEpowerment, collaboration and decision-making (Angles, 2007).

Furthermore, Agile Methods offer benefits in increased team productivity, employee satisfaction and by engaging team members from multiple disciplines it broadens organizational experiences and builds mutual trust, respect, a culture of constructive criticism and learning (Rigby et. al, 2016; Von Au, 2016).



Agile Leadership is a new style of leadership in which servant leaders are needed to support teams especially in developing complex solutions in often not well-known environments. Some elements of such a leader can be found in the roles of Product Owners and Scrum Masters in the software engineering. Successful Agile Leadership leads to increased team productivity, a higher employee satisfaction and builds a culture of constructive criticism and learning.

One of the first managerial recommendations of action is to find out if Agile Leadership is an option for the company. According to the chapter before this leadership style is especially effective in situations where teams have to continuously improve, especially if complex problems have to be solved. It’s a management task to find employees which could fill the role of Agile Leaders inside the new created teams. Another very important management task is to ensure, that structures are available in which it’s not easily possible to overrule the decisions of agile teams. Roles like a Scrum Master are definitely needed to protect the teams from method breaking actions like that. In addition, it’s important to form cross-functional teams to ensure that every step in the process of a teams work can be made by the team and it’s additionally very important for knowledge generation and innovation processes inside a team (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 2012). Additionally to the protection of the team from outside, it’s a management task to ensure the teaching of agile leaders to train agile methods and ensure the adoption of the correct behaviour of servant Agile Leaders. It’s recommended to implement corporate rules to prevent old “order-giving”-attitude from the new leaders. In companies, in which agile mindsets are not available from the scratch, it’s recommended to use external training resources or using experienced consulting firms to bring knowledge about the success factors, train agile abilities and methods and bring the correct mindset into the company. Furthermore, companies have to implement effective tools to improve the teamwork and the possibilities of agile leaders to serve the teams. In the end, further research on Agile Leadership is needed to prove the effectiveness of the style in different use cases. Then a wider use of the approach could be possible.



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