Leadership in the Age of Agile

Guest Contribution by Michael Hamman (CREO, LLC)

“The irony, we’ve found, is that building a culture focused on performance may not be the best, healthiest, or most sustainable way to fuel results. Instead, it may be more effective to focus on creating a culture of growth.”

Tony Schwartz
Harvard Business Review, March 2018

The Need for a New Leadership

Organizations around the globe are struggling to adapt to an increasingly turbulent economic, technological and business environment. 

Many companies are responding to the turbulence of today’s world by adopting agile process frameworks in their product and service delivery.  And for good reason: Agile delivery methods provide well-tested practices and frameworks that improve a company’s speed, customer satisfaction, and quality of delivery.

But, as many organizational leaders are finding, getting the implementation of Agile delivery methods right presents significant organizational challenges. This inevitably begs the question: How can I, as a leader, as a manager, build long-term, institutional conditions that support a deep and sustainable agility? What is my role as a leader in making that happen? How do I need to act; how do I need to be able to think? How, ultimately, do I need to be?

For the last 18 years, I have been working with leaders of all stripes on these questions. 

One thing that has become quite clear to me is the importance of the role of the agile leader in cultivating the capacity for people to be agile—that is, to think, react, relate, and communicate effectively and powerfully in the face of the uncertainty and turbulence of every-day life. 

Inner Agility and Outer Agility

The capacity to be Agile precedes and determines the capacity to do Agile. This points to a differentiation worth making: the difference between Inner Agility and Outer Agility.

Outer agility refers to the quality of agility we bring to the processes, structures, roles, and practices which determine how we get work done. 

Inner agility refers to the attitudes, mindset and complexity of mind that determine people’s capacity for thinking, sensemaking, and emotional intelligence in the face of the kinds of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity which Outer agility demands in the first place.

Inner Agility means that people 

  • Are able to think and make sense of complex situations in ways which honor the inherent complexity, ambiguity and paradox which characterize those situations;
  • Are better able to deal with difficult emotions and triggers which arise when faced with situations that are confusing or apparently threatening; 
  • Have a greater capacity for, and skillfulness in, the arena of relationship and communication; 
  • Are able to see the impact of their actions on others and to take responsibility and ownership for that impact; and
  • Are able to see themselves honestly, including in terms of how other people see them.

The New Role for Leadership in an Agile World

The greater the capacity for Inner Agility of an organization’s people, the more readily and the more naturally Outer Agility will organically appear. 

Inner Agility generates the conditions for Outer Agility.

This points to the primary job of the agile leader, which is to cultivate the emergence of Inner Agility across their organization.

When organizational leaders give their attention to the cultivation of Inner Agility within the organizations in which they lead and manage, they create the conditions from which emerge a deep and sustaining capacity for Outer Agility.

This is a significant shift in the focus of traditional leadership and management, which sees its job as managing to the structures, processes and outcomes which constitute Outer Agility:

The Focus of Traditional vs Agile Leadership

Three ‘Horizons’ of Agile Leadership

Such a manner of leaderful engagement with others and with systems necessarily unfolds across three horizons of our leadership: the horizon of Self Leadership, the horizon of Relationship, and the horizon of the Organization:

Let’s look a bit more closely at each of these, starting with the Horizon of the Organization, and moving backward through Relationships and finally to Self-Leadership.

The Horizon of Organization

The horizon of The Organization refers to broader organizational environment. Organizational systems are inherently complex and are characterized by discontinuities in their ability to be seamlessly unified entities. These discontinuities manifest themselves as distances that separate individuals and collectives from one another. 

In order to bring about organizational change or transformation in our role as Organizational Leader, we need to move beyond the linear, strategically oriented approach to that which we might call an ecosystemic approach. 

Let’s take a moment and look briefly at what I mean by this.

First …. While it is an important element in any systemic change endeavor, strategic planning reflects a deeper assumption of stability and predictability: that we can predict a future and on the basis of that prediction make a step-by-step plan. While not at all untrue, per se, such a paradigmatic view of reality cannot easily deal with the uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world we actually live in today.

A different—though complimentary—understanding recognizes the inherent complexity and unpredictability of life in a complex and unpredictable world, knowing that “best laid plans often go awry.” 

From such an understanding we approach the facilitation of change ecosystemically. By “ecosystemic”, I mean that we endeavor to create conditions which favor the emergence of new capabilities from which arise new kinds of behaviors, attitudes and outcomes. What I mean by “capability” points to a deep kind of know-how, a deeper kind of understanding, a more complex way of thinking about things and making sense of things. Such an upgrade in people’s capability naturally and spontaneously yields a new range of actions, practices, and attitudes—actions, practices and attitudes that are more likely to be in alignment with, and better support, the kinds of outcomes and impact we envision for the enterprise in which we live and work.

Second…. In order to facilitate the emergence of the kinds of deeper capabilities I’m talking about here, we need to widen the lens through which we look at organizations, from a narrow focus on organizational systems, structures and processes, to a broader lens which takes in the human dimension of meaning-making, relationship, and consciousness. We need to move from a largely engineering understanding of organizations to one that expands out to include a human systems perspective.

The Horizon of Relationship

Such an ecosystemic approach to organizational transformation begins with the growing of relationship capability. Relationships constitute, in many ways, the irreducible quanta of organizational life, especially in a VUCA world. When they are healthy, resilient, and intelligent, relationship systems—teams, groups, partnership, and smaller collectives (20 people or fewer)—are the most powerfully catalyzing force in any kind of broader, organizational transformation. Growing relationship capability is thus a key focus in growing organizational capability.

Key to relationship capability is the complexity of shared understanding, commitment and alignment which a given relationship system is able to generate for themselves. Such capability doesn’t just happen: it requires the growing of skillful practice in the area of communication, collaboration, conflict and in the ability to hold, and in fact elicit, a wide variety of perspectives. Such skillful practice is both a precondition for, and the very context of, deliberate relationship and engagement. Under such conditions of intentional and skillful practice, relationships and relationship systems (e.g., teams, groups, and partnerships) become the primary means by which we grow and develop, both individually and organizationally. That growth and development, in turn, becomes the very foundation of high performance in organizations.

There are very specific practices and skills in the domain of relationship that can be learned and developed (these are all well-documented in my book Evolvagility: Growing an Agile Leadership Culture from the Inside Out). There is a fairly high degree of commitment required to learn and sufficiently practice these skills—no different than is the case for many of the kinds of engineering skills which software developers must learn and master, for instance. However, such commitment pays off in the significantly higher performance of the relationship systems in which those skills and practices are learned—a payoff that translates into a powerful institutional capacity for broader organizational intelligence and skillfulness.

The Horizon of Self

The horizon of Self refers to the dimension of our own inner leadership capability—our individual consciousness. In a certain way, this is the center of it all: the inner capacity we have of making meaningful sense of situations such that the complexity of that meaning-making is a match for the complexity of those situations.

Oftentimes what happens is that situations arise which in some way stress our capacity as individuals—whether emotionally or cognitively—to face them in a relaxed and creative manner. We find ourselves somehow feeling “in over our heads”—vaguely confused, uncertain, lacking confidence, or anxious. Or, by contrast, we may experience none of those things, charging head-on into the situation but, in the end, somehow making a mess of things.

In all such cases, our ability to perform effectively falls short, in some way or another—not because we aren’t smart enough or even sensitive enough, but because the inner meaning-making (which, for the most part, we are not consciously aware of) which determines how we perceive and react to a situation is unable to take in the full picture, whether because we are somehow emotionally triggered or because we are unable to see the full picture, cognitively—or some combination of both of these.

The horizon of Self has to do with deliberately growing our own, individual emotional and cognitive capacity for complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. To the degree that we can do that, we become better able to embrace the skillful means necessary for growing a broader relationship capability as well as a greater ability to work in a generative manner within the even broader organizational context.


In subsequent articles, and in upcoming seminars and video shorts, I will flesh out, in a bit more detail, the specific practices, competencies, and tasks of this new role for leadership in an Agile world.

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Über den Autor

Michael Hamman is a thought-leader in the Agile world, known mainly for his work helping organizations, teams, and leaders toward greater holistic team and enterprise-level agility, primarily through growing their inner capacity for leadership agility in the face of the complexity, volatility and complexity that is 21st century life and business. His book Evolvagility: Growing an Agile Leadership Culture from the Inside Out distills two decades of work in helping individuals, teams, and organizations grow their capacity for leadership agility.

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