agile leadership

Agile leadership is the art of creating the right environment and context for the self-managing agile teams. An environment where teams collaborate, learn from each other, get quick feedback from users and are focused on quality and continuous learning. It’s the responsibility of the agile leader to continuously improve this environment. He or she doesn’t micro-manage the people nor creates total freedom. Balancing between anarchy and strict structure is crucial in today’s markets. Developing and maintaining this right environment is often hard work. Not focusing on the day-to-day details, individual results nor work progress. But focus on culture, ownership, mindset, feedback and long term goals.

Brief explanation of Agile Leadership [Nederlands]

Becoming an agile leader requires a new mindset ánd new tools, metrics and meetings. It’s a total different way to look at leadership than the traditional management, in which the manager tells the people in detail what to do and how to do it. Where the people or employees are asked to just to their job as prescribed in detail. This traditional management works pretty good where the work is repetitive and predictive. But in more complex or problem-solving environments, employees need a different kind of leadership to work and thrive.

Why is Agile leadership important?

Agile or new leadership is becoming more and more important. Why? Mostly because the characteristics and type of work is fundamentally changed of the past decades: from repetitive and predictive to creative and collaboration. Let’s have a closer look.

traditional leadership environment

Back in the 1900s traditional management and leadership became more and more mature. With the rise of Ford, Taylor and mass-production, the theory and tools of management became known. Things like KPIs, individual roles and functions and human-resources. The main idea back in those days was: you’ve got workers (resources) and managers. Managers where their to set targets, answer questions and make decisions. Workers or resources are to do their job, fast and efficient. The more tires somebody mounted or the more phone calls, the better. More output means better performance. But with new technology, computers and internet, a fundamental shift in our work emerged.

We no longer do repetitive and predictive work. See the research of Cascio and Montealegre. This repetitive work is now handed over to machines and computers. 40 years ago, many people were needed to do all kind of manual labor around transferring money, making phone calls or sorting mail. Today most of these manual labors is 100% automated by machines and computers.

People do mostly creative and collaborative work

In more and more organizations, the people are doing unique, creative and collaborative work. On a daily basis, they solve unique problems only once. They need their experience, brainpower and competences. Often these problems are even better and quicker solved when they collaborate with colleagues with different expertise and roles. They hardly do exactly the same job twice. They don’t write the same study again. They don’t create exactly the same Excel-file twice. Nor creates the same functionality, solve the same problem or find the same solution again and again.

Therefore more and more organizations choose for a different way of working: with self-managing, autonomous or agile teams.

Consequences for leaders

This means that these people and teams also need a different environment and different leadership. They need leaders who give them the right context and environment to excel and thrive. Leaders who facilitate the right tools, competent colleagues, clear and challenging objectives with fast feedback. They don’t need leaders who intervene or micro-manage them. Nor need they leaders that know all the details or give them impossible dead-lines.

This requires that we re-examine and re-define what proper leadership is. We need leaders who create adaptive and inspiring environments. Who are able to be vulnerable, open-minded, agile and flexible and build teams.


Agile leadership is coined around 2010. There is not one person who really invented or started the movement. It’s based on the work of Robert K. Greenleaf with his theory of Servant Leadership. Lately thought-leaders like Brene Brown (Vulnerable Leaders) and David Marquet (Turn the Ship Around) have matured the theory and practices of modern leadership.

Mindset of agile leaders

How do successful leaders look at the world? What is their mindset? They look differently to the world of work. The key things are:

  1. Complex. In faster changing markets yesterday solutions don’t work for tomorrow challenges. Therefore solutions have to be responsive, adaptive and flexible. These challenges can’t be analyzed or predicted upfront. They can only be conquered when they occur. Therefore a cross-functional team should be set to the task. People who – in traditional organizations would be in different departments – have different skills, experiences work together. That’s what makes self-managing: they have all the skills in the team to solve the yet-unknown problems of tomorrow.
  2. Most people aren’t lazy. People do awesome things, even when they don’t get paid. For voluntary work people want to spent countless hours and enormous energy. So it’s strange that in still too many jobs people are kind-of checked-out, they aren’t excited, engaged or pro-active. It’s the leaders job to create an environment where people love to work.
  3. Customer-era. Power is shifting from companies and institutions to customers (Forrester). Customers have an even higher demand for quality and speed. With the rise of the internet, customers can switch from supplier quicker and they can rise a bigger complain on social media. Therefore successful leaders organize teams around customers and customer-journeys. The battle is less on the best product and more on the best customer-centricity

Essence of agile leadership

Watch ‘Agile Leadership in a nutshell’ to understand the essence of agile leadership

The essence of agile leadership is creating the right environment for self-managing teams. This right environment consists of at least the following four components (see Agile Leadership Toolkit of Peter Koning on this site)

  1. Co-create the goals – don’t prescribe what teams have to do, but together make sure that the goals are clear. That teams know what to achieve, when they are winning the match. Examples are using a Key-Value-Indicator that clearly describes what the overall value is that teams have to achieve.
  2. Facilitate Ownership – create a thriving environment. Teams can’t be forced to take Ownership, leaders can only create those circumstances that teams take ownership. Ownership is a mental state of the teams where they are pro-active, proud, taking initiative and engaged. They don’t wait for orders, but take initiative to deliver high-quality products. A practical start is the Ownership Model.
  3. Learn faster – self-managing teams need to have quick feedback on their actions and their decisions. It’s the agle leaders role to improve the environment so that teams get this feedback. Preferably from users and customers. A good metric to use is the Time-2-Learn (T2L) metric.
  4. Design the culture – the culture is the real responsibility of the leader. He/she has to envision, design and improve the culture. Leading the culture is inspiring, but also hard work. A practical tool to help is the Habit Matrix.

Top 4 Pitfalls

The top pitfalls for agile leaders are

  1. Radical Autonomy – to prevent micro-managing or traditional management, agile leaders give teams a lot of autonomy. Autonomy and freedom is powerful, but too much autonomy or a too big a change is disruptive and disastrous. Agile leaders should learn to balance the autonomy or freedom with the maturity of the teams. See the Ownership-model for more details
  2. Answer (wo)man – although many leaders want to stop giving answers, when the teams don’t make enough progress or when the teams ask for answers, the pitfall is to still give answers. Successful agile leaders are able to coach and mentor the teams so they can discover the answers themselves. A practical solution is not to give answers, but to repeat or clearify the objective and goal. “What would be a good answer, considering we want to achieve abc?”. A practical tool is the KVI.
  3. Friendly leader – although new leaders have to be vulnerable, approachable and open, they can also be too friendly. Too friendly results in low-standards, vague objectives or under performance. Teams aren’t challenged, low quality isn’t corrected and upset stakeholders are shushed. It’s the leaders job to set ambitious goals and to be radical candor when objectives aren’t met or quality standards are too low.
  4. Ambiguous decision making – self-managing can make many decisions themselves. But it has to be clear which decisions can be made by whom. Which decisions can the team make themselves? And for which decisions have they go to other leaders? A practical tool is the Freedom Matrix.

Inspiring movie

The 4 components of Agile Leadership

Peter Koning gives the agile leader a steering wheel with four components. With this he can manage his teams in a new way. The agile leader gives the team inspiring goals, facilitates ownership, works on the learning ability and designs better habits that make the agile culture flourish, also in the long term. The overviews, reports, meetings and metrics that help with this are deepened in the book per component. The reader also discovers what is the right form of self-organization for his team.

Each component consists of two practical tools and a concrete skill of the agile leader, providing a total of eight tools and four skills. The skills are translated into practice at the end of each part. The tools are explained in such a way that leaders can immediately start working on it. They can be used in combination or separately and are effective in both cases.

agile leadership wheel
The agile leadership steering wheel

See the toolkit »

Next steps

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