New, in-depth research shows that people move through distinct stages or levels as they become agile leaders. At each new level, managers gain new capacities that make it more natural for them to lead in an agile manner. This article outlines three levels of leadership agility and shows how managers at each level of agility lead projects, lead teams, and engage in pivotal conversations. It ends with a few pointers about ways to assess and develop your own level of leadership agility.
We live in a turbulent global economy that will continue to be shaped by two deep technical and business trends: accelerating change and increasing interdependence. In 2001, implicitly responding to these conditions, a group of seventeen IT professionals convened at Snowbird in Utah. Representing a variety of what were then called "light" software development methodologies (Adaptive Software Development, Crystal, DSDM, Extreme Programming, Feature-Driven Development, Pragmatic Programming, SCRUM, etc.), they created the Manifesto for Agile Software Development . Since then, agile methodologies have gained ever-increasing recognition and momentum, naturally raising the question:
What kind of leadership is best suited for development teams using agile methods?
In our extensively researched book, Leadership Agility (Jossey-Bass, 2007), my co-author Stephen Josephs and I provide several examples of agile IT managers, identifying the specific personal capacities and professional practices that make them agile leaders. Our book was not initially inspired by the agile software movement. Rather, our interest in agility grew out of decades of experience coaching, training, and consulting to leaders in all types of roles.
Leadership Agility was also inspired by our shared interest in stage-development psychology, a little-known field that may not initially seem that relevant to agile software development. But bear with me. Over many decades, research psychologists have mapped the stages by which adults develop, both cognitively and emotionally. These stages don't refer to age-related life eras, such as the mid-life crisis. Instead, at each new stage adults develop a more advanced set of capabilities for responding effectively to change and complexity. In other words, they become more agile.
For years, as Stephen and I used this perspective to guide our work with leaders, we noticed that managers who functioned at more advanced stages of personal development found it easier to adopt more agile and effective leadership practices. We also knew that research studies had found significant correlations between managers' developmental stages and various aspects of leadership effectiveness.
Levels of Leadership Agility
At about the time the Agile Manifesto was created, we launched a project to systematically research the relationship between five stages of adult development and leadership effectiveness. We discovered that, as managers grow through these stages, they develop five corresponding levels of leadership agility.
Figure 1 provides snapshot profiles of the first three levels: Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst. This article focuses on these levels partly because of space constraints, but also because the key leadership development challenge in today's businesses is to help Experts become Achievers and help Achievers become Catalysts. This chart shows how managers at each level conduct themselves in three "action arenas": leading projects, leading teams, and engaging in pivotal conversations. Note that each level of agility includes and goes beyond the skills and capacities developed at previous levels. Based on data collected from over 600 managers, percentages refer to research based estimates of the managers currently capable of functioning at each agility level.
As the chart indicates, the Expert level of agility is best suited to traditional software development practices. Consistently effective leadership of agile teams requires growth to the