Agile Leadership: Useful Approach or Mind Trap?

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Is Agile Leadership the answer to challenges that commercial organisations face in dealing with complex environments? The complexity of markets has been growing over the past decades and many organisations have trouble coping. Uncertainty is omnipresent and existing business models no longer work as expected. Long-term plans become virtually obsolete the moment they are brought up.

Many organisations lack the ability to deal with frequently and rapidly changing conditions. This ability is also termed agility. That „organisations must become more agile“ is by no means a new insight. An entire movement of coaches and consultants is dedicated to transforming organisations into so-called 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 to give guidance on how managers, executives and superiors „lead“.

After reading about Agile Leadership, I can only speculate, however, what the goals of this approach might be. Sometimes it is a more humane, more appreciative way of „leading“. 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 objectives. Well meant is not always well done, though! There are several fallacies in the reasoning, which I will discuss below.

Leadership Missing

The approach of Agile Leadership is addressed towards so-called „leader“ roles as known in the tayloristic management world. This implies the assumption that leadership would be something that can be assigned to a person by means of a formal role. That person would then lead others and because that person must be somehow a better „leader“, they are granted higher disciplinary power. A pattern that has been formed and reinforced within the tayloristic management world until today. Tragically, this is largely accepted as inevitable and represents the status-quo of „how organisations are built“.

In fact, real leadership is a social phenomenon, happening in-between people when one or more voluntarily follow others. 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. We must be very clear, that voluntarism is not existent in typical boss-employee relationships. Such relationships are based on unequally distributed disciplinary powers. Superiors come with greater disciplinary power than their 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“, because that’s what it is. The Agile Leadership approach continues to disguise this fact and nourishes the narrative of „superiors must lead employees“.

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 and socially rewarded to „have a career“. 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. As their behaviour has been successful until now. 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 seeks shortcomings in people. It draws away our attention and makes us overlook the systemic problems. A far more effective approach is to look for root causes of the observed behaviours 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. 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 – once indeed revolutionary and successful becomes increasingly unfit. Taylorism was excellent 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. This is because decision processes are unnecessarily 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.

Esoteric Showmanship

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.

No topic in organisation development currently attracts more attention than leadership. Most 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, more explanation is required and obscurity is increased. Agile Leadership remains intangible. How this is supposed create more effective value creation is unclear. The apparent benefit that can be seen is for consultants who aim at positioning themselves the way esoteric saviours do. It is a pleasing narrative, leaving the organisational problems of customers untouched.

The Agile Leadership Paradigm is Problematic

The root causes why organisations nowadays are having trouble dealing with high market complexity are in their structures. Centralised 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. This must be structurally supported by the organisation. Only then can an organisation effectively adapt to rapid changes in their environment. With real leadership in place, teams and entire divisions can find solutions unhindered by inert administrative processes. 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.

More about this topic in German

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