Scrum is Agile Leadership – Part 4

Agile leadership triangle

Putting theory into practice

Submitted by Peter Beck on 10/24/2019

When I heard the term agile leadership for the first time, a whole host of problems sprang to mind. Yet again, the word agile had been put in front of an established concept to upgrade its image – just like agile requirements engineering, agile testing and, for that matter, agile knitting. I was initially optimistic – leadership could use an agile makeover, I thought. I soon discovered, however, that the term was only being used as part of a push to form elites, consolidate traditional career pathways, and even as an excuse for managers to avoid shouldering any responsibility at all as part of some new nonsense about leadership. Behind all this frustration, however, there is the option to see agile leadership as a major opportunity to understand how leadership should look in a world of work that has embraced agile values. Parts 1 to 3 have told two stories from two companies, illustrating that Scrum is agile leadership. This part summarises the theory and provides a few useful tips for getting started in practice.

What is leadership?

People lead others every day. We all do it. By writing this article, I am leading you, the reader, towards new insights that should help you to make decisions for yourself and your own company. In part 3, I wrote: You cannot not lead. If a team member backs out of making a decision in a discussion (perhaps because they are scared of conflict), they still lead to a decision – even if it is a decision they do not personally support. From this perspective, the leadership is omnipresent. Nothing extra is needed to implement leadership: it already exists. What is required, however, is an understanding of leadership. Ultimately, leadership concerns us all; it is not a duty reserved for the elite. The semantics of the word leadership are quite straightforward: a combination of the word leader and the suffix -ship1, it literally describes the skill or art of leading others. If you look for a definition of leadership, however, you will soon find that definitions can vary significantly – particularly in the case of its contemporary use in the world of business. For many people, leadership is first and foremost an alternative word for management and an opportunity to set yourself apart from an ever-rising tide of managers. At its core, the notion here is than a manager is better (paid) than an ordinary employee. However, I would advise anyone offered a career opportunity or a chance at promotion where leadership is involved to tread particularly carefully.

To give a practical meaning to the word leadership, let’s consider a real-world example: A small girl, perhaps around five years old, is standing in the queue for the supermarket checkout with her father. She is particularly taken with one of the enticing offers positioned at eye-height for a five-year-old. She looks up to her father with wide, despairing eyes. “Please can I have it, pretty please?” she asks. I have a daughter myself – so I know that my answer might very well have been: “OK, but don’t tell your mother!” What did the young girl do? She used her voice and body language to lead her father to a decision in order to achieve her goal. At its heart, then, leadership is a way to lead others to make decisions in order to achieve a greater goal. There are a great many ways to do this. We might refer to the young girl’s technique as the wide-eyed method. Command and control and servant leadership are other leadership styles. Each technique has its merits and is part of the overall aggregate of leadership practices. However, if you want to become better at something, the question to ask is not how, but what – that is, the values and principles you wish to follow.

What is agile leadership?

Back to the term agile leadership. It highlights that a particular understanding of leadership is needed to make an organisation agile and keep it that way. To make sense of this, however, we first need to clarify what is meant by the word agile. In 2001, a small group of people defined values and principles for software development and set them down in the Agile Manifesto2. This document is generally credited with making agile popular in the world of work. The authors behind Scrum were also involved in formulating the manifesto. To them, the term agile expressed particularly well why they worked in line with their values and principles. Back then – and to this day – software development is tasked with reacting to an increasingly fast-moving market situation and technological development. Other domains currently face the same challenge as software development did in 2001. Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 are just some of the buzzwords accompanying this challenge. With this in mind, becoming agile is a goal for an organisation looking to optimise itself. In part 3, I gave a very brief definition of agile: “Agile is the ability to respond to change”. In summary, therefore, we can also say:

Agile leadership is a way to lead others to make decisions in a rapidly changing environment based on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto.

Interpreting the meaning of agile is obviously a simple matter, as the term is not more precisely defined in relation to organisations.3 This is also related to the fact that Scrum is now often used as a synonym for agile. However, in addition to the definition of its own values and principles, Scrum is also based on a fixed definition of rules, roles and artefacts.4 For this reason, referring to Scrum is much clearer and unambiguous. It is a wonderful aid to help people understand what leadership should look like in an agile context. And, above all, it makes it very easy to say what agile leadership is not.

How does agile leadership work with Scrum?

Scrum considers itself a framework. As such, it defines three roles and their fundamental responsibilities. These include leading others. For instance, in explaining the role of a Scrum Master, the Scrum Guide explicitly uses the term servant-leader. Parts 1 to 3 explain in detail how these roles provide leadership. The various leadership duties are outlined again in the following image.

Levels

Taken together, the roles form a leadership system in the form of a power triangle. This structure is so stable that it does not bend in one particular direction if one power begins to prevail. Then again, it also offers maximum flexibility by implementing scheduled control loops that keep blockages to a minimum. Power triangles like this have proven their worth in social systems – such as the body politic, made up of legislative, executive and judicial powers. The same applies in football, where clubs are made up of a team, their coach and the chairman.

How can I implement agile leadership in practice?

As outlined in parts 1 to 3, putting agile leadership into practice is a never-ending journey. Instead, the important thing is to perfect your skills and abilities in an ever-changing environment.

1. Learn agile leadership through Scrum

Scrum is a framework that provides structure for a team. In many cases, trying to translate this understanding of leadership to an entire company is too abstract and impractical. However, anyone who has worked in a genuine Scrum team will know that this is the best training for agile leadership. My advice is this: Introduce and implement Scrum systematically wherever possible – and, ideally, join a Scrum team yourself. Only once you have understood and internalised the key values and principles can you grow beyond the framework, whether as an individual, a team or an organisation.5 In the case of value streams evidently not focused on complex work, I would recommend introducing Kanban in connection with Scrum events and roles.

2. Use principles as your guiding light

You should work with all your staff to draw up a model of leadership based on principles. As the Agile Manifesto is heavily concentrated on having one team and software, we have formulated Scaled Agile and Lean Development Principles6 (ScALeD) for companies to use. These offer an effective starting point for formulating your own model of leadership with your staff.

3. Never compromise on the tripartite leadership structure

First and foremost, this means resisting the temptation to introduce a new role or create a new hierarchical level in order to solve a problem – even if it appears to be an effective short-term solution. In reality, the problem will not go away and will simply have been masked. It will diminish the work system over the long-term and reduce the agility you are striving to achieve.

Part 3 – How does the Scrum Master lead?Learn leadership with Scrum


  1. -ship: a native English suffix of nouns denoting condition, character, office, skill, etc.: clerkship; friendship; statesmanship. ↩︎

  2. Agile Manifesto: https://agilemanifesto.org ↩︎

  3. Heart of Agile by Alistair Cockburn is another attempt to give meaning to the word agile: https://heartofagile.com ↩︎

  4. The Scrum Guide provides a generally accepted definition of Scrum: https://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html ↩︎

  5. Example of Spotify: https://labs.spotify.com/2014/03/27/spotify-engineering-culture-part-1/ ↩︎

  6. ScALeD agile lean development – the Principles http://scaledprinciples.org/de ↩︎

Peter Beck

About the author

Peter Beck

Peter has set himself the task of creating companies that deliver value for their customers and employees. That was also the motivation behind his decision to found DasScrumTeam. Peter is a passionate Scrum Trainer (Certified Scrum Trainer, CST) and consultant with a solid background in engineering. Since 2007, he has trained and advised a wide range of development teams, specialist departments, project managers and those in leadership positions, helping them to apply the Scrum framework, agile planning methods and software engineering practices. Peter is a graduate engineer (Dipl.-Ing, TU) specialising in electrical engineering and information technology.

  • Experience with Scrum since 2004 as Team member, Scrum Master, Product Owner, Coach and Trainer.
  • Served as ScrumMaster in internationally distributed Scrum Teams
  • Co-founder and Product Owner at DasScrumTeam AG
  • Key interests: Agile companies and Scrum beyond Software