04 May 20223 mins

What the heck is an Agile Leader?

Why do we need Leaders when we speak about Self-Organized teams?

Written by

Mathias Knittel & Aida Zoican

In a self-organized environment of empowered teams there is a confusion about the leaders’ role. Do they still have a role? If yes, how can we make sure it does not affect self-organization?

Self-organization doesn’t mean that a team does what it wants. Instead, the team decides how to best achieve the strategic long-term goals that promise to deliver value.

But where do those long-term goals come from? The goals need to be provided by the leadership in an effort of creating a strategy derived from business, engineering and company goals. The team needs to understand those goals and be inspired by them. For that, the context around the problem must be clear. Usually that takes more than just a presentation or one workshop. Once the team’s understanding and commitment are there, we usually call this an aligned goal. A clear focus includes a common understanding of What-Not-To-Do which can be even more challenging.

As soon as a team really starts to incorporate the goals into their operational work (e.g. product development process), more questions will start to bubble up to the surface. It is the leaders’ responsibility to provide challenges, priorities, and transparency. But even more important, an empowered team needs coaching. The leaders can serve by asking powerful questions, trusting that the knowledge for solutions lays within the team.

This implies that the team has all the skills and abilities required and is free to decide how to achieve those aligned goals.

Empowerment certainly isn’t easy! People need a sense of belonging in the team and the organization so they can thrive. They should be listened to, encouraged to speak their truth and share their opinions. Therefore, the leaders need to create a safe environment and listen, give feedback and support.

We sometimes see that the fear of failure is keeping teams into a routine and blocking their true potential. In a safe environment, the team is encouraged to experiment and see failure as an opportunity to improve, make evidence-based decisions and find pragmatic solutions.

These are high expectations - so it’s fair to say this is why self-organization needs agile leaders.