The challenges that commercial organisations face in dealing with unexpected events in their environment have become evident over the past years. The complexity of markets has undoubtedly grown. Uncertainty is omnipresent, existing business models no longer work as expected, and long-term plans become virtually obsolete in the moment they are brought to paper.
Many organisations lack the ability to deal with frequently and rapidly changing conditions. This ability is also termed agility. Accordingly, the postulation “organisations must become more agile” is by no means new. An entire movement of coaches and consultants is dedicated to transforming organisations into agile organisations. The agile movement has its roots in an initiative by several software developers who authored the Manifesto for Agile Software Development around 2001.
For some time now, the agile movement has been propagating so-called Agile Leadership. This is some kind of behavioural model, deriving principles of the manifesto for agile software development in order to set a reference for how managers, executives and superiors should do their job.
After reading about Agile Leadership, one can only speculate, however, what the goals of this approach might be. Sometimes it is a more humane, more appreciative way of leadership. Sometimes it is a more effective way of management. Someplace else can be read that this will help employees to work more self-dependent. These are all very honourable obejctives. Well meant is not always well done, though! There are several fallacies in the reasoning, which I will discuss below.
The approach of Agile Leadership is addressed towards managers, executives, and superiors, hence “leader” roles as known in the tayloristic management world. This includes the assumption that leadership would be something that can be assigned to a person by means of a formal role. This person would then lead others, using elevated disciplinary power. This is a pattern which has been formed and reinforced within the tayloristic management world until today, and it is largely accepted as unavoidable.
In fact, real leadership is a social phenomenon, happening in-between people when one or more voluntarily follow others. In effect, this means that a “leader” cannot decide to lead. Instead, a person becomes a leader when others decide to follow. Voluntary allegiance is a sign of appreciation of good ideas or performance in a certain field. It can be revoked at any time. Leadership requires voluntary allegiance.
Voluntarism is the key-difference here, and voluntarism is not existent in relationships between superiors with greater disciplinary powers and employees with smaller or no disciplinary power. The possible consequences of disagreement with their superiors is always an element subliminally taken into account by employees. Even the “best” boss-employee relationships cannot not be free of this.
We should rather speak of “steering” or “command-and-control”, which is the better known term, because that’s what it is. The Agile Leadership approach continues to disguise this fact and nourishes the narrative of “superiors must lead employees” so they perform their work properly.
Personification of Guilt
As the Agile Leadership approach directly addresses managers and executives, it comes with an inadvertent accusation. The work of managers is questioned, disqualified even, and a new kind of “leadership work” is demanded.
This ignores, however, that the behaviour of managers and executives is thoroughly intelligent. It follows from the system it takes place in. It is merely legitimate, even socially rewarded to “have a career” and move up the ladder. One gains social reputation by getting into a management position. People who achieve this have only shown their contextual intelligence. From that perspective, it does not make sense to change behaviour because so far, their behaviour has been successful. Moreover, such a demand throws the “you haven’t done it right” in the middle of their faces. Resistance is then just a natural reaction.
The approach draws our attention towards alleged shortcomings in people, and makes us overlook the systemic problems. A far more effective approach is to look for root causes of the observed behaviour within the systemic context. This enables working the system and overcoming structural shortcomings. The Agile Leadership approach does not get us there.
Manifestation of Centralised Steering
The Agile Leadership approach contributes to the preservation of the centralised command-and-control system for the reasons stated above. The term sounds modern and includes seemingly novel ways forward but a closer look reveals: it is based on an over 100 year-old management model. That model – Taylorism, named after Frederick W. Taylor – was indeed revolutionary and successful for the problems organisations were facing at the time. For robust value creation in today’s highly dynamic environments, the tayloristic paradigms are no longer useful.
Centralising information and decision making always impedes value creation under highly complex conditions. Decision processes are prolonged, information is concentrated at the wrong places and ownership is drawn away from those closest to the markets in the organisation’s periphery. In centralised organisations, market knowledge must first be transferred to a-priory defined decision makers. Without knowledge about the problem, these then “roll out” the solution to the organisation. This is both inefficient and ineffective. The provided solutions often enough are not even suitable to solve the problem.
At the end of the day, the Agile Leadership narrative is problematic and harmful because it is a deception. Surely unintentional but that does not make it less harmful.
There is hardly any topic in organisation development about which has been written more than leadership. Much of what can be read is based on the tayloristic model of “leadership” that implements command and control. This is incompatible with socially legitimate leadership. The social interrelations between appreciation and allegiance as well as between disciplinary power and obedience remain misunderstood. A differentiation between the two is utterly important, though, in order to understand the social system that an organisation is.
Again, the notion of Agile Leadership is not helpful because it continues fogging the required differentiation. In fact, obscurity is increased. More explanation is required how Agile Leadership is supposed to help in achieving effective value creation. This is only for the benefit of consultants who aim at positioning themselves as esoteric saviours. It helps selling trainings for something intangible, allegedly something that can only be grasped by real masters. In the absence of effectiveness, it is afterwards easy to claim that “the customer did not get it”.
Why is this problematic?
The root causes why organisations nowadays are having trouble dealing with high market complexity lie in their structures. Especially centralistic command-and-control “steering” of value creation fails under high complexity. That does not change if one changes it’s label to “Agile Leadership”.
Far more effective is the consequent decentralisation of information and decision making that is implemented through the organisation’s structure. Only then an organisation can develop the ability to rapidly adapt to changes in their environment. When real leadership can take place, teams and entire divisions can react appropriately without having to activate inert administrative processes first. That makes an organisation agile.
The new terminology does not help to overcome antiquated systems. In fact, this helps reinforcing the status quo in a most subtle, dangerous way. Let’s not set up such a mind trap, in which we can get caught all too easily.