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The Foundation for Agile Leadership – Mindfulness, Intelligence and Servant Leadership

Agile project management engages a team of stakeholders in an interactive process among developers and customers

to deliver an outcome that satisfies customer and organizational needs.

To make an agile approach successful, there is a need for effective leadership at multiple levels – executive, functional and project/program management, and team.  An Agile approach challenges those who are anchored in hierarchies and a command and control management approach.  As a greater number of executives realize that agile leadership can overcome the job dissatisfaction caused by authority based, non-caring management, agile leadership is being recognized as an effective leadership style for any project or process.

The agile leader serves the needs of the team by facilitating.  Leaders who are mindfully aware, emotionally, socially and cognitively intelligent and who have a commitment to servant leadership are likely to be best at leading agile projects, or, in fact, any activity.

What is a Leader?

A leader is someone who guides and directs to maximize the efforts of others.  The Business Dictionary defines a leader as “A person or thing that holds a dominant or superior position within its field, and is able to exercise a high degree of control or influence over others.”[1]  Other definitions highlight that effective leadership stems from influence rather than from authority and power.  The effective leader inspires, is an agent of change, and takes an approach that engages team members by building a sense of community and empowering them to self-manage.  The effective leader communicates clearly and candidly. He or she sets an example. The effective leader is practical and willing and able to change style to address the needs of each unique situation.  For example, if team members are unable to self-manage and collaborate with others, the effective manager will find an alternate approach that may be more directive. The effective leader cares about people and recognizes it is the people who make projects and organizations work.

Agile Leaders

Agile leaders are effective leaders.  They use the principles of the agile approach to go beyond outdated traditional leadership approaches.  

The Agile Manifesto[2] laid out the basic values and principles of the Agile approach in the context of software development.  These same values and principles apply to operational activities and projects of all kinds.  The agile approach values delivering useful outcomes, individuals and interactions working together in healthy relationships, and responsiveness to change.  Processes, tools, plans, documentation and contracts are recognized as valuable though not as valuable as relationships and adaptability founded on the goal of satisfying the customer. 

Agile leaders are servant leaders. They are facilitators, who provide an environment in which people can learn, grow and perform optimally.  The agile leader buffers the team from disruptions and distractions.  The agile leader promotes continuous improvement by establishing a safe environment in which the team can candidly reflect on its own performance.  The agile leader defines and makes sure everyone understands the goal and is doing what needs to be done to achieve it.

The agile leader, in fact any effective leader, values practicality, adaptability, resilience, and a clear sense of the need for trust-based and respect-based personal relationships.  The agile leader is “cognitively ready” – mentally prepared to perform competently in volatile, uncertain, complex and often ambiguous situations.

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The Foundation

The foundation for effective leadership is made up of mindfulness, intelligence and a sense of servant leadership.

Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose without judgement.  It is stepping back to observe whatever is happening within and around oneself.  Mindfulness enables resiliency, non-reactive behavior and an experiential understanding of the interconnection among people and systems.  

Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply skills and knowledge.  The kind of intelligence required is not just cognitive intelligence as measured by IQ.  It includes social, emotional and spiritual intelligence – the foundations for building and sustaining effective relationships.

Servant leadership is a leadership approach based on the idea that the leader is dedicated to making sure that those being served build upon their skills to grow as people, to become optimally effective, healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servant leaders. 

Building on the Foundation

The leader of an agile team is charged with enabling the team to deliver useful product to satisfy the requirements of clients and product users by making the team self-managing and protecting it from disruptions and distractions.

For example, the agile leader will use formal processes to enable and at the same time moderate the effects of change.   In a project using an Agile methodology, the project manager and team of developers and customers get together to review a backlog of requirements and agree upon the requirements for the next iteration of development.  The customers agree to minimize change within the iteration and any changes in scope are documented and justified.  The intention is to enable change while recognizing that changes, particularly those that take place while work is going on in an iteration, are expensive and disruptive.

Mindfulness and intelligence come into play when it becomes clear that powerful customers may attempt to make excessive changes in requirements during an iteration.  Perhaps these customers do not spend enough quality time thinking through the requirements or do not care about completing the iteration in a timely way. Maybe, they believe that the developers can just adapt and deliver on time anyway. 

Mindfulness ‘sees’ what is happening, objectively.  The mindful person observers the behavior and observes his/her and the team members’ feelings of frustration and fear.

Emotional intelligence is founded on being mindful of the arising of emotions. It comes into play when the fear of confronting the customer begins to get in the way of protecting the team from the disruption of uncontrolled change.  It also influences the way the leader responds and communicates with the team to moderate behavior and, if the disturbing behavior continues, to handle it in a practical way. The ability to recognize and soothe the team’s concerns is an expression of social intelligence.

Conceptual intelligence comes into play as the leader finds the right way to state the problem and come up with a viable solution for the current situation. 

Servant leadership and spiritual intelligence kick in to ensure that the team is protected from unnecessary stress brought on by irrational beliefs and behavior that violates basic agreements among the team members. It also influences the desire to promote learning and personal growth by holding performance reviews and addressing issues candidly.

The Power of Agility

An Agile approach, applied correctly in the right situations, enhances the ability to satisfy customer expectations while enabling healthy relationships among all project team members. By breaking up the work into small “chunks”, delivering product quickly, and by working in a team that combines customers and developers who reassess the plan frequently and collaboratively, the Agile approach to project management promotes agility – the ability to move quickly and easily, particularly in the face of change or challenge.  The power of agility is to manage interactions among stakeholders to enable fully engaged customers in the effort to deliver products and services that satisfy their needs, even in the face of volatility, uncertainty complexity and ambiguity.

To be successful, an Agile approach needs agile leadership with its collaborative, service-based approach founded on mindfulness and the enhanced intelligence mindfulness enables. Without this kind of leadership it is likely that the Agile approach will be ineffectual – either too rigidly adhering to an impractical set of rules, or not applying the right level of discipline. This will cause team members to be unmotivated and performance will suffer. With agile leadership the team gets the support and direction it needs to grow and to perform optimally.



George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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