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  • Writer's pictureJohn Graham

What is Agile Leadership?

The Best Leadership, Obviously

If you've taken our "Agile: Deconstructed" training, you know that "agile" now isn't new - it has a long history of being discovered and rediscovered.

From Theory X and Theory Y management to Iterative Development used in Project Mercury, many ideas that make up the core of what we call agile today weren't invented in Snowbird, Utah.

Similarly, what is often called Agile Leadership didn't come from the agile manifesto either. Some of the most recent reinventions of "how we ought to lead" in an agile environment (short for "how we ought to work") harkens back to 1995.

Scrum as a software methodology was just starting out, though Scrum as a management methodology had been around for over ten years.

Daniel Goleman had just finished his book on Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence, often called EQ, was argued to have more influence on success than any other trait.

(These studies used an older version of personality, the Big 5, that left out honesty and humility. I'd argue that a leader's H factor is also critical nowadays.)

But what's an emotionally intelligent leader look like?

The 6 Leadership Styles

Goleman's research led him to identify 6 leadership styles when looking at emotional Intelligence applied to leadership.


These folks tend to take charge and tell people exactly what to do and how.


These folks work to inspire those around them with what could be possible.


Democratic leaders, above all, seek consensus.


Coaching leaders look to grow their subordinates.


Affiliative leaders try to break down power structures by "being one of the guys."


Pace-setting leaders attempt to lead by example - they work long hours, have high standards, and expect others to follow them.

Which Style is Best?

Goleman argued that it really depends on the context and the situation (which isn't to confuse this with situational leadership) and that great leaders should be able to draw from and apply multiple styles.

In other words, there's no best style.

But that's a lie. There is a best style.

Coaching. Coaching is the best style. It also requires the most emotional Intelligence.

Remember how like, two sentences ago, I said it depends on the environment? For the most part, many of the leadership styles excel in an environment where you don't want to be.

Emergencies: Bad

Command and control can do well in an emergency when people are panicking. Of course, how you got into trouble isn't really the point. But if you often find yourself in this style, who keeps starting the fires? It's probably you.

Burnout: Bad

Affiliative leadership can help grow well-being and often is just about having fun. It can help folks cope with burnout and find some recreation at work. But it ultimately isn't that productive since you're burning effort on recovering your labor.

It's more effective to not burn out your talent in the first place.

Distrust: Bad

Democratic leadership can help regrow trust. When bonds have been broken, often you need to rely on rote consensus to make people believe their opinions matter. Democratic decisions aren't always that effective in a business context, where we'd prefer to have a meritocratic decision-making process.

Plus, who broke those bonds of trust anyway?

Shirking: Bad

Pace-setting leadership can really shake folks to their core and get them to improve their output - both quality and quantity. You can prove it can be done and expect it to be done. This can help reset expectations in an environment of low standards.

But how did those standards get so low?

In fact, affiliative and pace-setting leadership can be switched off to create a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of office environment that will increase turnover quickly once people get wise.

Lack of Mission: Bad

A visionary leader can re-engage people with a mission. She can help people understand the larger picture, where they fit in, and where everyone is going. However, you can't inspire your way to KPIs and results. In the actual situational leadership model, a visionary leader helps build the will but has nothing to offer in the skill department.

More on this one later.

That Leaves Coaching

Every other leadership style is there to deal with a problem - probably a problem the leader or manager created in the first place. Only Coaching is there to deal with "peacetime" leadership - what do we do with nothing is wrong?

Well, we grow. We grow as fast as possible.

Welcome to Capitalism

We live in a "capitalist" society, yet the managers we train seem so, well, disinterested in capital. Capital is stuff we have that makes more stuff. Capital is productivity. The more capital you have, the more productive you are.

As a manager at a software team, you may be tasked with increasing productivity. If you're a capitalist, you should believe the way to increase productivity is to invest in capital.

(We're not talking about "capitalism" per se. Nor are we defining a capitalist here as someone who "owns the capital." We're just saying a capitalist, in this context, is someone who believes that capital is what increases productivity, as opposed to, I dunno, magic or something.)

You can rent, build, or buy tools to help you do your work. Often historically under-invested in, teams who develop and maintain their own tooling to automate a lot of their work can be very productive. (So long as they aren't reinventing the wheel)

Another way to increase capital is to invest in your human capital. This is training, culture, intellectual knowledge, talent.

Also, historically underfunded, human capital can increase productivity on your team. Every dollar invested in training yields thirty over the next three years.

While you don't have to take or have your team take formal training, the fact is, cultivating human capital has a very high return on investment.

Building Human Capital is the Main Strategy of Coaching

This "peacetime" leadership style - absent any emergencies that need other styles to fix - will continually invest in their people, and that investment will constantly allow the team to outperform others.

This is why it's the best style. You may use the other techniques to coax a team back into "peacetime" to maximize your time coaching your reports.

"Is That What An Agile Coach Is?"

No. Well, yes and no.

Agile Coaching was developed to sell Agile processes without offending or disrupting current management hierarchies. If you asked any agile proponent - how I should manage my team as a manager, they'd almost certainly advocate a coaching style.

But Agile Coaches themselves, like Scrum Masters, are agnostic on management. Would they make good managers? Sure, in a lot of cases. Would managers learn a lot from the methods employed by Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches? Absolutely.

But because most managers are downright afraid of being found out as a lousy manager, no one's all that interested in learning. Hence, Agile Coaching as an industry had to move more towards the facilitation and consulting side of things. This kept them safe from having an opinion on how management is done.

In most agile frameworks, traditional managers can co-exist, and very little is defined for the manager role. While an agile developer is slightly different than an ordinary developer, an agile manager is rarely defined. This is because managers are the ones who buy agile training, and they rarely want to be told what to do.

Pacesetting and Command and Control Dominate Engineering

Most of your bosses probably fell into one of the two above camps. Pacesetters tend to be very recent graduates into the management role and have trouble delegating tasks and divorcing themselves from the day-to-day work.

Command and controllers often weren't ever top-notch engineers. They're the most likely to worry about being 'found out' as being bad at engineering, and thus they meticulously double-check every decision. Full of criticisms and devoid of praise, they can't help but worry everything you do will come back to embarrass them.

If you're lucky, you probably had one coaching style manager, and you've looked back on them as a mentor ever since, even if you've changed jobs.

You may have also had affiliative and democratic managers, which you probably preferred over your command and control bosses - so much so that you may have gotten confused and figured that style was good leadership. It's better in most cases than a pure pacesetter or commander, but it has its weaknesses too.

Affiliative managers will have trouble asking for more - it makes people hurt, and watching people get hurt is very painful. But, we learn most of our lessons by occasionally being hurt. So affiliative leaders tend to lead to lower and lower standards - either by dropping balls or trying to do everything themselves.

Democratic managers have a similar issue - the team will rarely vote to put itself in harm's way and have learning experiences. If it were up to the team, they'd vote to lower taxes and increase spending every single time - but this is clearly not sustainable.

What about Visionaries?

You do actually need some visionary leadership. Coaching leaders can build individuals up, but visionaries help determine the direction you need to head.

The easiest way to know when to apply a visionary style of leadership vs. a coaching style is:

  • Always coach your direct reports.

  • Provide vision to your skips.

The power differential as you move up the chain makes Visionary tactics more beneficial. So you need to practice setting goals and inspiration now because you're just not going to have the bandwidth to coach dozens to hundreds of people.


Agile management prefers the coaching style of leadership and management. These styles were developed from the same body of knowledge that gave us Emotional Intelligence.

While each style does have its best "niche" to fill, overall, most day-to-day management should be in the coaching style. This is because the productivity gains of investing in human capital are tremendous.

Most other management styles' niches are signs that something is wrong. So you may need to use them occasionally because:

  • We all make mistakes

  • You may have inherited a problem

But if you aren't finding yourself living day to day in the coaching style most of the time, you may have some things to learn.

Finally, as you move up the hierarchy, you may need to provide a visionary style more and more to people who are your skips since you won't have the time it takes to coach each individual.

Want to learn more about Guildmaster's approach to agile and process?

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