Agile Leadership

In previous posts (herehere and here) I have called out the need for really solid agile leadership to enable change. Without great leadership, change falters. We know what bad leadership looks like - directive, dis-empowering, disconnect between what they say and what they do. We all know the symptoms of bad management. But what does good management look like?

We can do the obvious and just say that good leadership looks like the reverse of bad leadership - non directive, empowering, behaves in accordance with what they are saying and so on. All that is true, but I have seen really empowering, non directive leaders who were still bad leaders at driving change. I think there is something fundamental that all leaders need to make them effective at delivering lasting change. That thing is the ability (and desire) to change themselves.

The biggest thing that stops organisations from changing is a leader who asks for change in the organisation but does not (or can not) make the change themselves. Why do leaders need to change? Because different organisations need to be managed in different ways. An organisation based around a system of top down processes requires a very different leadership style to an organisation based around a collection of self organising teams. A product focused company needs different management to a customer focused company.

When we change an organisation from one model to another, as we do when looking at organisational Agility (and other forms of organisational change as well), we create a new organisation that requires different management to the old one. If the leaders of the organisation are unwilling, or unable, to change their own leadership behaviours to suit, the change will stall and ultimately fail.

Organisational change requires three separate journeys. The first two are generally well acknowledged and catered for in the various change methodologies that most large organisations use for this sort of thing - the organisation needs to move from one state to another, the people within the organisation need to go on a personal change journey to adapt to the new organisation. Change management methodologies are all about the first journey and most of the good ones at least acknowledge the second.

The third journey though, that leaders need to go on a personal change journey to grow as leaders to match the new leadership style required by the new organisation, is generally not even acknowledged by change management. Leadership is seen as an external stakeholder to the change process rather than a vital participant. It is assumed that the leaders will be able to lead the new organisation because they are the leaders of the old one.

This assumption is what leads to supposedly agile organisations having large chunks of legacy process hanging around. If senior leaders want their reporting to keep looking just the same as it was, then all their supposedly agile teams need to run monthly status meetings and submit traditional scope/budget status reports. Organisational structures will stay aligned to executive reporting lines rather than following value and so on. Agility will be a thin veneer over a traditional organisation.

The recent announcement by the CEO of a large Australian financial organisation that they were going agile and that agile teams were starting two levels below the CEO is a fantastic example. While it sounds great on the surface - a whole large financial organisation going agile - how much real change will there be if the senior leadership is not willing to embrace agility for themselves? If that CEO had announced that agility starts with him and his direct reports, then I would have been very impressed. As it is though, my bet is that this one statement has doomed the attempt to either (at worst) fail outright due to conflicts between senior leadership working in a traditional model and the rest of the organisation working in an agile way, or (at best) become a thin agile skin over an otherwise unchanged, traditionally managed organisation.

One of my favourite ways to kick off a transformation is to get leaders in a room and ask them to give me half a dozen or so words that describe how they perceive their current organisation. Usually words like slow, complex, static will emerge. Then I ask them to give me a set of words that express what they want the properties of their new organisation to be. Usually we get words like like dynamic, fast, purposeful. Then I ask them what leadership traits the current organisation needs and what leadership traits an organisation with those new properties would need. They are usually a very different set.

The task then is for the leaders to come on the journey and learn to be that new sort of leader to match the needs of their new organisation.

This is a very challenging thing for a lot of leaders to do. It means putting aside things like ego. It means being able to acknowledge that you don't have all the answers, that you quite possibly don't have all the skills needed to manage in the new organisation. It means acknowledging, publicly, that you need to grow and change as a leader in order to fit the new organisation, just like your people need to grow and change. This is a really hard thing for leaders to do as so much of their position and identity as a leader is bound up in appearing strong and knowledgeable.

If they can manage it though, the example they then give to their people through their actions, their willingness to acknowledge weakness, their willingness to change themselves, can be truly inspiring.