11 Emotional Competencies of an Agile Leader
By De Waal Hoon
In my time as an Agile coach intimately involved in helping businesses implement their Agile adoptions, one of the most common sentiments I hear is that “management understands Agile and is keen to adopt it”, or, my personal favourite, “We have buy-in from management”. A positive start to any implementation, yes, but one that is rarely matched by action. When the time comes, management is often nowhere to be found. And while the general definition of “buy in” (to believe in and support an idea, concept or system) is being met, a belief in something amounts to nothing unless it is transformed into actionable change.
Why are so many leaders absent when it comes to the process of Agile adoption? The answer usually turns out to be fairly simple, but before we explore it, let’s take a quick look at the concept that is Agile.
What is Agile?
Agile is a mind-set, a philosophy based on four values and twelve principles that guide our behaviour. And although Agile is currently mostly associated with software development, it is applicable across many other industries, including the Education, Marketing and Medical disciplines, to name a few. Adopting an Agile mind-set requires that we change the way we are used to doing things. The behavioural changes required by Agile can be daunting, and resistance is common. After all, an Agile adoption requires a close re-assessment of existing business relationships and the “way things have always been done” in terms of communication and collaboration.
This is where the challenge lies. Change is difficult, and can be scary. Challenging the status quo can be not only demanding, but also potentially disruptive to your business’s future. In order for change to be successful, we need leaders to step up and lead the way. Coming back to the question above, “Why are many leaders absent when it comes to the Agile adoption process?” The answer is indeed simple: leaders are human too, and they also get scared.
The Hidden Driver of Great Performance
In working with leaders at various stages in their Agile adoptions, I am reminded time and time again that one of the biggest gaps in their leadership toolbox is usually simple Emotional Intelligence. There are few other times when management EQ is as crucial as it is in an organisation’s times of change, and Agile adoption is no different. The behavioural changes that need to be effected for a successful transition can often require a total change of company culture, and such change can only be driven from the head of an organisation.
In their book “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance“, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee do an excellent job of describing the impact that emotionally intelligent leaders have on a company and its people.
They identify four domains of Emotional Intelligence, and within the four domains, various competencies. These are the vehicles of primal leadership, and while notably effective leaders exhibit high levels of competency in at least one of these skills, it is rare for even the most outstanding among them to be strong in all of them.
For the purposes of Agile leadership, these are the competencies that I deem most relevant to fostering effecting change:
1. Emotional self-awareness
An Agile leader understands the effect that change has on people, and though they themselves may be apprehensive about the change, they are able to control their own moods to foster confidence in those people who rely on their leadership.
An Agile leader has a deep understanding of the Agile mind-set, and has confidence in their own efforts, actions, roles in driving the changes required.
3. Emotional self-control
An Agile leader knows how to keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control when the going gets tough, and projects a calm demeanor.
The Agile leader knows to lead by example, and can discuss problems and issues with openness, honesty and integrity.
An Agile leader knows that the Agile adoption process will bring changes and understands the need for – and benefits of – frequent inspection and adaptation.
An Agile leader has a “can do” attitude, seeing the up-side of events and inspiring their teams.
Agile leaders can sense and relate to the emotions of others, understanding their concerns and taking an active interest in their growth.
8. Organisational awareness
An Agile leader is tuned into decision networks and politics at the organisational level.
9. Inspirational leadership
The Agile leader knows that the essence of teamwork is a shared commitment, and how to inspire and guide others through the creation and reinforcement of a compelling organisational vision.
10. Developing others
Agile leaders know how to coach others to unlock their abilities through feedback and guidance.
11. Being a Change Catalyst
An Agile leader knows that change is required, and is confidently able to manage and lead the change in any viable new direction.
As mentioned above, even the most outstanding leader will not be strong in all these competencies. The good news is that competencies can be developed. The first step is for leaders to identify those competencies that resonate with them, based on their values and principles. The next is to actively pursue improvement through relevant courses, workshops, or, ideally, the involvement of an experienced mentor that can steer development in the right direction.
It is a central tenet of change management that corporate change must be encouraged at the individual level if it is to thrive at the organisational level, and effective leadership is the best way to do so. No Agile adoption can hope to be successful without both buy-in and active encouragement from leaders, and this is where any Agile strategy must begin.