Category Archives: Agile Leadership

Using an Adaptive Leadership Style in Agile

I’ve been a Project Manager for many years and, over the years, I’ve gone through a lot of job interviews, particularly as a consultant where you might change roles every 3-6 months. One of the questions I’ve been asked in interviews is “What is your leadership style?”. My answer to that is I use an “adaptive leadership” approach; that is, I think that’s there’s not just one leadership style that works all the time and that is particularly true in an Agile environment. You have to adopt an adaptive leadership style in Agile that is appropriate for the situation.

How does that apply to Agile Project Management? There is a popular stereotype in the Agile community that all project managers are only capable of operating in a “Command and Control” leadership style. I’m sure that is an exaggeration, but it is true that many project managers have a tendency to assume a somewhat directive leadership style. For years, that has been an essential characteristic of many project managers – you can’t just sit on the sidelines and let a project run its course without some kind of direction and leadership. Agile changes that paradigm dramatically by emphasizing self-organization and empowerment of the team and positions the Scrum Master in the role of a “Servant Leader” to support the team rather than leading and directing the team. So, where does that leave the project manager? What value does he/she provide to an Agile team? I think the appropriate answer to those questions is that “it depends”.

A lot of people will say that a project manager can’t possibly play the role of a Scrum Master because the roles are so different. I don’t necessarily agree with that perspective…that perspective is based largely on the stereotype that all project managers are only capable of operating in “command and control” mode. I believe a good project manager has learned over the years to develop an adaptive leadership approach that’s appropriate for the situation and I think that’s very appropriate in an Agile environment.

There is an idealistic Agile view that all Agile teams are totally self-organizing, completely empowered, and require little or no direction or leadership. The team, as a whole, should function on its own without much direction at all – that’s true to some extent, but a more pragmatic view is that all teams aren’t necessarily at that level of maturity and some leadership is needed to help them get to that point. “Adaptive leadership” is an important skill in this kind of environment…a good Project Manager or Scrum Master should be capable of providing a sufficient level of leadership to get the team to a level of self-sufficiency and progressively back out as the team reaches that level.

“Adaptive Leadership” or learning to adapt your leadership style to the situation is a very important characteristic for project managers to be successful in an Agile environment.