Ed Toner

Agile Leadership

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This past year we have increasingly discussed Agile development in our organization. State governments like Nebraska are interested in Agile because it promises more fluid production processes and more response from customers. Agile has an appropriate place and time, as do other development methods which we have diligently addressed during these conversations in Nebraska.

Looking at my calendar, a few weeks ago I had an invitation to present in a podcast on “Agile Leadership”. What is Agile leadership? I thought, Am I an Agile leader? Thus, I started my research. A word of caution, I tend to read articles and interpret those views the way I want them defined, and not always the way the author intended them. So, here is my interpretation of Agile leadership.

Incremental Approach

Much like Agile development, Agile leadership is thought to be incremental. It has to do with organizational improvement. It regards change, which is prompted by premeditated leadership. Agile leadership is the ability to look at an organization, understand the dynamics within and across teams, comprehend what’s happening, gain the team’s trust, and then influence the existing structure with coaching and mentoring.

For example, in the OCIO we developed adherence to the ITIL standards of Incident Management, Service Request, Change Management and Problem Management. Getting to this point required the cooperation of Operations, Infrastructure and Application Development teams. The teams came up with a structured approach to code management, scanning and promotion to the production environment, and Application Development must now follow the structured guidelines. One of these guidelines, gave strict adherence to Resource Management, and now the Project Management Office maintains a project prioritization matrix which we use in our portfolio management.

So why did the teams do this? As the CIO, it only really came down to one directive, If it does not have an incident request number, a service request number, a change request number or a project number it does not exist.

Essentially if we can’t report on a project, there’s no way to show what happened.

Managing Risks based on what is already Known

I read that Agile leadership is about driving and leading change through example and encouragement. I am an emotional leader. I find that I am constantly the most enthusiastic person in any discussion when it comes to the vision for our organization. I have learned this is the easy part; the challenge is knowing what exactly needs to change. My long-standing opinion is that the CIO must be technical to lead with this type of experience.

Agile leaders seek out learning experiences their entire lives. They are described as risk-takers, but they never take risks when failure could adversely affect a customer. They take managed risks, meaning to “isolate until proven successful”. In manufacturing, as an industrial engineer, I was placed in all kinds of situations I knew nothing about, and was asked to “fix” the problems. There was risk that I may not “fix” the problem, and there was a challenge associated with each of my new assignments. I had an innate desire to try. Each time I was adding new tools to my arsenal.

As someone who has been exposed to many different experiences in my past, I naturally associate new incidents to those experiences. I take into consideration what I have learned, to make things better in the present. I learned how to solve challenging problems by staying calm and thoughtful while listening to the other experience in the room. Success breeds success and confidence increases with experience.

About the People

Authors have quantified an Agile leader as being more focused on people than processes. I believe in having the right people in the right positions to be effective, and providing them with the autonomy, empowerment and support to get the job done. This means giving trust to those people’s decisions. Agile leaders change how an organization works, they provide structure and process, and most importantly they measure results. Agile leadership is deliberate forward progress and it matures an organization.

Qualities That Make an Agile Leader

  1. Ability to transform – transforming processes requires building a large internal knowledge base of past experience and applying that to new challenges. Agile decision making is the result of a lifetime of gathering information based on prior experiences and job functions. Agile leaders personally transform to fit the situation and the team. From my experience managing teams in South America, Europe and North America, my leadership team in North America noticed that I was a different leader in the morning with Europe and in the afternoon with South America.

  2. Enthusiastically seek challenges – Agile leaders get energized when confronted with uncertainty and disorder. I believe I create challenge by questioning everything we do and then slowly making incremental changes through projects that produce value for customers and the organization.

  3. Take measured risks – To initiate change there is always risk. Being open to feedback but resolute about the vision for the organization speaks to a leader’s confidence which is also necessary to change.


You may notice that I did not mention innovation. Innovation was certainly a major tenet according to the articles I came across in my research. As is usually the case, I disagree with the norm. Agile Leaders are not innovators but tacticians. An Agile Leader replaces ineffective processes and practices with a calculated and well-planned, repeatable approaches. This, I believe, will provide the highest levels of quality service; not the latest fad nor the leading edge approach. Innovation needs to evolve from planned changes in behavior.

The Interview

Oh…about that interview. Well, I researched and prepared for my interview. I wrote down what I learned from my research and did some self-evaluation to see if I was or was not an Agile Leader. I asked others about what I learned from my research and when I started the interview, it was about what we were doing in regards to Agile Development in Nebraska. Nothing whatsoever to do with Agile Leadership. So as an Agile Leader, I used my research to write a blog.

As always, I appreciate the efforts you put forth every day to provide the highest level of quality service to our customers.