blog post

How to lead Agile with/in tension

Published on 5th September 2019

Interview with Olaf Lewitz

Olaf Lewitz has over 15 years of experience in Agile. He is a founder of TrustTemenos Leadership Academy. He works with leaders, increasing their clarity of identity and intention, and helps growing organizations where safe spaces are available for people to show up and grow.

His strategy relies on increasing trust and responsibility through invitation and clarity. Olaf is a veteran and a leader in the international Agile Community and a guru of Agile leadership, able to inspire leaders to become a change they want to be. We asked him to share with us his thoughts on successful formula for becoming strong leader and what we can do to become impeccable Agile Leaders.


What kind of Leadership is Agile Leadership?

Leadership is taking responsibility in a context.

Today’s leaders find it increasingly hard to take responsibility – and to encourage others to take responsibility – as the context is changing so fast. And as if speed of change were not challenging enough, we can rarely anticipate in which way things are going to change. So how do we lead in unpredictably changing contexts?
The short answer is: by becoming quicker and more flexible in how we adapt our leadership. And this, to me, is key to „Agile Leadership“– it’s not a special or new or different way of leadership per se, it’s a way of reflection, inspection and adaptation of leadership, so that we can keep taking responsibility while the contexts are shifting and changing.


The leader’s role in an Agile environment

For the sake of this story, let’s assume that your business has started an Agile journey – you might call it transformation or transition, implementation or evolution, you might have chosen a framework like Scrum or Kanban or SAFe, you might be driven by your customers or your foreign headquarters. For the purpose of this article, those details won’t matter.
What matters is that several structural elements of your organization are going to change:

  • People have new roles and responsibilities
  • Teams are put together differently and supposed to collaborate differently
  • The customer relationships become more important; the conversations more frequent
  • Decision making is moving from the top to the teams
  • Reporting lines get challenged because paradigms of teams and departments don’t match

There are more kinds of change, and your organization may only face some of these. Non-regarding the specific details of your organization, several things will happen for sure, because there are human beings in your organization:

  • Some people will be afraid of change.
  • Some people will guard their status.
  • Some people will be confused.
  • Some people will get angry.

Again, this list is not complete. These are the reason we need leadership, and we need it on all levels. In a context where things are shifting fast, we can’t rely on a few people at the top to do what the organization needs to do to survive:

  • Set direction.
  • Measure progress.
  • Establish order.
  • Explore and manage the unknown.
  • Harvest outcomes and results.

In TrustTemenos Leadership courses, we call this perspective on leadership “Nurturing Growth”. It’s the foundation for everything, because failing to do any of these five things well kill our business in the mid or long term.


What do we do when we’re leading?

So, how do we square this circle? We have five important things that need to happen in the organization, we have rapidly changing conditions and we want employees who are creative and engaged, not angry or afraid. What do we do?

We focus on building and developing relationships. “Developing Relationships” is the core perspective in TrustTemenos leadership. We spend most of our time as leaders developing relationships. Why is that? Two main reasons:

  1. The relationships we build are the one thing we can rely on when everything else changes. They help us form a strong community, a strong team, that thrives in adversities, that wins by surfing and making waves of change.
  2. Relationship development is not taught in school. Most of us are born with natural talents in this regard, but few of us hone these through our education and career. Most of us are not conscious in how we build and develop relationships. As leaders – in organizations where relationships are the most important asset as everything else might change tomorrow – we have to become aware of how to build and develop relationships well.

Developing relationships is an integration of two stances: one is Welcoming, the other is Engaging.

  • Welcoming responsibly, we stand in reality, we see what’s really going on, we set and hold boundaries, we appreciate differences, we listen with empathy, we pay attention.
  • Engaging curiously, we show up, we set and state intention and direction, we give feedback, we make agreements, we direct and guide attention.

Reflecting on how we do these things, learning how to improve, growing our capacities in all of these skills with feedback from the people we lead, we build trust.


Reflection, Reflection, Reflection

I frequently open my leadership trainings with the statement that the only thing a leader needs to improve is a mirror: for most situations where we’d like what we don’t get, it shows us where the real problem is… and, it shows us the only thing we can really change.

In practice, mirrors are poor instruments in improving our leadership. We need people for reflection, for understanding the difference we make. As leadership is mostly developing relationships, we need to check how our showing up makes a difference to others. And: other people view us in a way that’s different from our own, and we can learn from that difference, too. They will illuminate our blind spots, if we let them.

If you want start improving your leadership right now, start reflecting.

Take a pen and your journal and start writing:

  • What difference did I make today?
  • What did I hear and see that gives me evidence for that difference?
  • What puzzled or surprised me? What can I learn from that – about my context, and myself?
  • What do I want? And what difference would that make?
  • What will I see and hear that gives me evidence for that difference?
  • What did I learn today?
  • Whom did I serve today?

You may replace “today” with “this week” or “this month”. Make this reflection a regular practice.
With the practice of reflection comes more awareness: more awareness of your impact, and your intention. My working definition of leadership in TrustTemenos Leadership courses is:

Leadership is making a difference with intention.

We want to notice the difference we make. We want to know what difference we want to make. Being aware of intention and impact allows us to notice the difference between the two, and to close that gap. For this, again, we need reflection – and the help of others. Leadership development is something you can’t do on your own.


How do I influence my environment?

Every one of us, every minute of every day, is influencing their environment. We just don’t tend to be aware of it … The culture of my organization, my team, is created by everything I do or don’t do, say or don’t say… just showing up or not showing up can already make a difference! The bigger my authority is in the system – for instance, when I hold an official leadership position – my example will lead others to follow.

This could be interpreted as a burden, but it’s actually a great opportunity. Human beings copy relationship behavior naturally and quickly. We are social beings; we adapt elegantly to different social contexts. So, if you change your behavior in how you show up in relationships, people will follow. This is actually much more effective than talking about change – our habits for relationships form long before we learn to talk. As soon as you as the leader start to reflect, inspect and adapt your relationship habits, others will do that too. All it needs is just a little courage.


Common Challenges

What challenges do leaders have in common? Ask other leaders, and you’ll quickly find out that we’re not that different:

  • Lack of time. In our changing world with increasing responsibility, creativity and innovation, it’s hard to find a leader who is not short on time. Which means managing your own time is a really important skill for you to invest in. Lead yourself first!
  • Lack of confidence. In many organizations, the best experts get promoted to leadership positions. We move from being the best at what we do to someone who’s almost clueless at what we do. Plus, our colleagues are envious because they wanted the job, too – or we believe they are which boils down to the same thing.
  • Lack of delegation tools or habits. Moving from a “doing” responsibility to an “serving others doing it” one requires delegation. Most leaders I meet are stuck in doing too much of the work themselves. I learned this from Jean-Luc Picard: “The first rule of leadership is learning how to delegate.”
  • Lack of role-models. In a changing organization where the traditional way of doing things is discouraged and the new, “agile” way of working is encouraged, we simply don’t know what to do. There’s no good example. Ask your team! Ask your people what kind of leadership they need, how you can serve them best, and make that a regular conversation.


And: “Be the leader you wish you had!” (Simon Sinek)


Why do we need this whole Transformation anyway?

I occasionally come across leaders who don’t believe all this change – be it “digital”, “new work”, “agile” – is actually needed. I hear you. I understand and agree that most of these hypes is just that: hypes. And: the world is changing. Customers are more demanding. Technology is shifting. Startup banks with 25 people outperform Banks with tens of thousands of employees. Pharma startups are bought by huge enterprises for billions of Dollars because the big companies can’t invent those drugs themselves. A few years down the road, much fewer drivers and doctors will be needed compared to now. Amazon might decide to disrupt your market next.

The most important reason I currently see is: Employees won’t put up with the old bureaucratic structures and habits anymore. My daughter is twenty. Her interpretation of the word “follow” was shaped by Twitter. She has no patience for bad management. Or bad education. I hear from many organizations that they have challenges hiring young talent. I’m not surprised.

So, you are welcome to ignore this shift in leadership and corporate organization at your own peril. Your organization might survive long enough for you not to need to change. And, you might be excited by what happens when you start developing relationships consciously. Let me know how it goes!



This November, within Agile Month – Autumn 2019, Olaf Lewitz holds Certified Agile Leadership Course I, for all interested who wants to become impeccable Agile Leaders.