What is agile leadership?

Podcast Ep. 157: What is Agile Leadership? with Ola Tunde and Lucy Lin

What is agile leadership?
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Episode Description:

This week, Dan Neumann is joined by his colleagues at AgileThought, Ola Tunde and Lucy Lin. In this episode, they explore the true meaning of agile leadership. They dive deep into the core of an Agile Leader, someone who can foster a safe environment where a team feels free to speak up, innovate, and take action. Dan, Ola, and Lucy discuss the value of balancing the left and the right sides of the Agile Manifesto, as well as providing strategies for leaders to become more agile. This episode contains lots of great analogies, real examples, and valuable book recommendations in the field of agile leadership.

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Key Takeaways

  • Agile thinking needs to pursue the understanding of what motivates individuals
    • A team must deliver value together in a different way, even though each individual is motivated differently
    • Motivate people prioritizing autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality
    • A manager drives people to deliver work with the intention of intimidating them to deliver value. On the contrary, an agile leader inspires people in order to deliver value
    • Inspiration vs. drive; leaders are the ones who inspire others while managers drive people
    • There are assumptions that consider that leaders know all the answers and that they are who give good orders, but good leaders are those who let the decisions happen where the information is
  • Centralized vs. decentralized leadership
    • There are certain practices that are better centralized, but when the practices involve creativity and innovation, decentralized leadership is of more value
    • A centralized environment is driven by command and control, no innovation is welcomed in this kind of scenario
    • In a decentralized environment, the team is allowed to make decisions and fosters innovation
    • Agile leadership happens when the leader can celebrate the work of the team
    • An agile leader doesn’t blindly trust a team but encourages teams to create transparency to what is happening
  • Left and right sides of the agile statement: There is a need for structure but there is also a part that needs to welcome change
    • Agile leadership marinates both left and right together for people to be able to deliver more
    • Embracing changes is a key aspect of an agile leader
  • How can leaders foster an environment where teams feel free to speak up? 
    • A safe environment is where people can be free to speak up and discuss and they won’t be punished or criticized for their opinions
    • A leaders must be able to bring people from opposite views together, always manifesting and being open to opposing views
  • How do you know if you are an agile leader?
    • You are not the boss, you are the servant
    • A leader must be ready to sacrifice for the team
    • An agile leader is humble, coachable, teachable, and has the ability to inspire others to action

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach, and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:17] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m your host Dan Neumann, and really excited today to be joined by two guests, Ola Tunde and Lucy Lin, both colleagues of mine here at AgileThought. Tunde. Lucy, thanks for joining.

Ole Tunde: [00:32]
Is good to be here.

Lucy Lin: [00:33] Thank you for having us.

Dan Neumann: [00:35] Thank you for joining. Lucy, this is your first time on the agile coaches corner podcast. And for our listeners, could you maybe just introduce yourself briefly and how you ended up at AgileThought?

Lucy Lin: [00:46]
Oh yes. I’m actually new to the company. And today is my first podcast. I’m really excited about it, but before I even joined, I joined AgileThought I have heard some of your podcasts and some of the YouTube videos that company put on website. And this is one of the reasons I actually, you know stirred the interest and I’m not alone. Some of the newbies actually share those journey with me. So I’m really excited to join your podcast today and hopefully it’ll be a good one.

Dan Neumann: [01:29] Thank you Lucy. Very, very excited to have you here. And yes, we have a little, it’ll probably still be at the end of this one. We have a little bit of an advertisement we’re growing pretty rapidly and we’re always looking for new talent, not just to come in and help us with what we do, but also to bring new ideas to the company that so we can continue to grow as well. So super excited to have you. Thanks, Lucy. The topic for today is we’re going to be exploring agile leadership and really what is agile leadership. And Tunde, would you like to maybe give an, an intro into the topic?

Ole Tunde: [02:06] Thank you so much Dan. And it’s got to be joined by Lucy. So when you’re dealing with agile leadership, you know, there’s a book by Daniel Pink it’s called drive. Agile leadership has to have the ability to understand what motivates individuals, that makes up the team, and then help them to deliver value together as a team in a different way. And it takes the mindset of a leader to be shifted. So the agile way of thinking that’s agile leadership.

Dan Neumann: [02:43] Perfect. Thanks for that. I don’t want to put you on the spot, Lucy, but have you have you consumed drive? I know different folks have read different books and then I’m not sure if Daniel Pink’s drive that talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose is one that has, has come across your radar yet.

Lucy Lin: [03:00] Oh yeah. They are so many. Yeah, so many great books on this topic. Right. And you heard people are saying different things about the leadership. And I think Warren Dennis once said that the leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. I think that really says a lot about agile leadership.

Dan Neumann: [03:25]
I love that quote. So the ability to translate vision into reality and thinking of, then you put the two of those together, how do you translate vision into reality by motivating people with the structure of autonomy, mastery and purpose?

Lucy Lin: [03:42] Yes. Yeah. So as a leader, you have to have the vision you have to have you, you, you can, you can, missionize the word that doesn’t exist, then you’ll be able to communicate those visions clearly and convince people to go along with you.

Dan Neumann: [04:01] So Tunde, what what would you add there on the concept of translating vision into reality and bringing other people along? How do we do that? Maybe how was it done traditionally non-agilely and what’s the shift that you see agile leaders needing to make?

Ole Tunde: [04:18] There’s a book I read about 21 years ago is called servant leader by Timothy Eldridge, servant leader. I was actually forced to read his book by my old mentor, by the name of bill Cummins out of island town, Pennsylvania. Actually, this was 26 years ago. To be precise. So basically the contrast is a manager drives people. So deliver work, a manager drives people, basically command and control use title as why you need to follow a unit to obey. It’s more about obedience, a driver, kind of like a fearoic mindset, driving people with the intention to intimidate them. So deliver value versus the agile leader, an agile leader inspire people, so actually understand what they’re delivering and then they also deliver value. So one is a driver. The other, which is the agile leadership is one that lead from the position of inspiration. Let me give you an example, Martin Luther king, inspire people through nonviolence and people follow. He changed the world, not just America. He changed the world because he inspires. To this very day is inspirational, still live compared to Adolf Hitler who drove people through fear. And guess what? In this very day, the contrast is still there. One inspire the other one drove.

Dan Neumann: [06:11] Yeah. Your concept of the fearoic driving. You know, I th th the hieroglyphs of, of slaves essentially, right? At least that’s the working theory for how the pyramids were built, unless you subscribed to alien theory. We’re pretty sure it was slaves built the pyramids and, and it was through driving and a lot of centralized efforts.

Ole Tunde: [06:33]
You know, Dan, you kind of said it, you, you hit the nail on the head right here. When you’re saying, when you drive people, they’re not, they are not knowledgeable workers. They are your slaves, right. Versus when you inspire people, then they’re not slaves. They’re not resources as we call them in the technology field. They are colleagues, people that help deliver the work. We do, we do it together.

Lucy Lin: [07:01]
Yeah, the traditional way of picturing a leader shift, there are some assumptions there. And I think they David Marquet and, you know, he is also very famous on his leadership of book 10, this ship around, right. And so in the traditional way that they are assumptions and think a good leaders knows all the answers, then the good leaders give a good order and everybody should just follow them. But in, in, in his book, you know, he actually has described his how he walked when he was a captain in a Marine nuclear submarine. And he can empower people and he didn’t give any orders. And that he let the people take the decisions. Let the decision happened where the information is and that’s how he made it success.

Dan Neumann: [08:17] Yeah, no, it is a wonderful example. And it brings up, I think the tension between centralized leadership and decentralized leadership, how do we set strategy and vision and let people contribute to it? And, and how do we, there are some things that make sense to be centralized and standardized accounting practices. You probably don’t want all your teams, accounting, differently, HR policies, those are appropriately centralized, hopefully they evolve, but then there’s a lot of work and leadership and opportunity that can be de-centralized.

Lucy Lin: [08:59] Okay. Right. Yes. So there are places that the centralization has the value and there are other places creativities and innovations has more you know, has more value. So it’s not a one size fits all solution.

Ole Tunde: [09:25] Yep. So when you deal with I want to jump on what you and Lucy said, when you deal with centralized versus decentralized environment, a centralized environment is actually driven by command and control. Majority of the time, basically meaning that I am the manager. I am the one that makes the decision. I am the one you follow, and guess what? There’s no innovation in those type of scenarios when you’re dealing with decentralized environment, oh, allow the team to make the decisions, allow the teams to be innovative. It allows the team to foster their own innovation. It allows the team to actually be creative. And also its allowed the leadership now to be able to be a cheerleader. So celebrate the work of the team that is agile leadership.

Lucy Lin: [10:22] Right. But yeah, in the traditional command and control situation you see a lot of micro-management and, and you see they’ve managed you’re in fear, right? So my way or the highway, so that really surprised a lot of the creativities and people do not feel safe. They are not in an environment they can be free to express themselves to do what they can do the best. And in the idea environment via, like, I think the leadership is there to build a safe environment so people can trust each other and they know their team are there for them. And they know their leaders will sacrifice their own interests for the interests of the team. And solely would feel safe and free to express.

Dan Neumann: [11:30]
Yeah. I like the the concept. So sharing the vision, helping translate that into action. You mentioned trust and I, I think it was a Ronald Reagan that said trust, but verify when he was talking about the Russians. So we don’t just blindly trust teams. We do want teams to create transparency to what’s happening so that they’re there, that builds on the trust. And then as, as agile leaders, I’d be curious to get your thoughts, how they might balance the the need for structure. So people and interactions over processes and tools, you know, while there’s value on the right, you know, we value the things on the left more. So processes are still important. Tools are important. There is value in planning that there’s that stuff on the right half of the agile values. And yet in an agile environment, we want to respond to change. We want to collaborate with our customers. So how, how might you see agile leaders helping balance the left and the right side of that agile values statement?

Ole Tunde: [12:39] Yeah. Let, let me, let me take that. So when you look at a manifesto, it is not saying the stuff on the left is bad. No, and that’s, that’s all, I think that is a no and you know, that people get like, oh yeah, we got to stop doing everything on the left. According to the of, no, it’s not saying it’s bad. We say documentations, we still do some documentation in agile meetings. You know, we call it ceremony, but we still have meeting sessions. We’re not saying it’s bad. Well, I do leadership help bring the balance, that balance to, you know, both stuff that’s on the left and stuff on the right, but with everything with balance, I think you, you, you hit the nail on the head earlier when you mentioned trust, the byproduct of trust is transparency, transparency for the leadership to come together and say, okay, we’re not going to get rid of everything on the left because it’s not all bad. Everything about project management is not all bad. We’ve delivered before with, well, let’s take some of the good stuff and carry on with the stuff on the right that’s agile leadership. That’s able to help kind of, you know, marinate both left and right together for people to deliver more.

Lucy Lin: [13:57] Yeah. All the process and the documentations or the standards, they are not bad. And, but in the average changing world, we would like to have the agility and the that, that we want to be able to be able to adapt, to change and to embrace changing. Right? So we want to be aware of our surroundings as a leader. We like to see the situations at a corner and to avoid, or the problems and to take advantage of the opportunities. And I think that’s what the leadership can do for the organizations to, to help them, how to pivot and to put themselves in the best position for the changing to come.

Dan Neumann: [15:09]
You touched on a really interesting phrase there that I wanted to amplify and revisit. You talked about seeing the surroundings. And I think that’s a really important thing that an agile leader can do for their teams, which is to help them understand the context in which they operate. It can help them connect to resources. And I don’t mean people, but, but resources available to them in the company, resources available in the industry, make teams aware of threats that they might not see coming share strategic insights. And so that, that opportunity for leaders, when they’re not managing tasks to pick their heads up, look around the surroundings and really see what’s happening. That could be a problem, I think is a really powerful enabler for agile leaders.

Ole Tunde: [16:03] Yeah. let, let me jump in real quick. So you talk about, you know agile leaders. Someone that’s not managing task. I agree. I want to add more to it. Agile leader understand the concept of Gamba. Agile leadership, understand the concept of gamba, men and agile leadership they’re not afraid. Someone around the people doing the work, agile leadership. They are not afraid to, you know, act suggestions from the knowledgeable workers that are delivering the value. Basically they go to the place where the work is done and collaborate so that they can foster an innovative spirit.

Lucy Lin: [16:52] Yes. So I have been in the bay area for like more than 20 years. I see a lot of startups. I see companies rise and fall and, and see sometimes we kind of know what’s going to happen, but you can feel like you lost control of that because of how the management was set up. And because, you know, I just not catching up with the latest trend. And I think as you are in the leadership position, you should be able to actually point out all this possibilities. You, you have to make clear the decisions and then be able to communicate all of these visions. So prepare the team solely can put through. Right?

Dan Neumann: [17:52] Yeah, definitely. And in that you were, you’re talking about some of the challenges teams have challenges, organizations have one of the behaviors that an agile leader wants out of the team is for those teams to speak up when they have challenges, how have you seen leaders foster an environment where teams are bringing the appropriate challenges to leaders? Some things teams should figure out some things leaders should figure out. Sometimes there’s a gray area in between. What, what techniques have you seen or would you advocate for?

Lucy Lin: [18:27] So I want to give an example where it didn’t work. And I have worked for one of those really big airline industry companies. So when, when, when the senior manager meant changing, the new boss comes and then he pointed out the way we have a very expensive maintenance space in the most expensive places, you know, I can negotiate an idea in the middle and I get the text cards and all the plans, and we build the center there and we’re cutting costs. And all this everybody say, oh, it’s a good idea. But by the time that we had the meeting center build, then they realize the most costly for the maintenance of the aircraft is not the rent is not, the labor is actually the cancellation of the airplane. So when San Francisco is the hub and the airplane flies in, and then you stay overnight and the work gets done, right, there was no cancellations, but if you build it somewhere, that’s not a hub. And then every meeting is a cancel flight. Now let’s look back. Everybody knows that. Why didn’t I know what to tell him. Yeah, he’s new to the leadership. I mean, he, he his idea was brilliant, but it didn’t work why did nobody tell him. So I think that is really telling the environment that people do not feel safe to, to speak up like the little, they don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be wrong. So, but they look into their own interests. I want to keep my job, right. I don’t want to challenge my boss. So again, as a leadership good leaders, you have to create a safe environment. So people can be free to speak up and to discuss, they are not be punished by you know, one and two, their opinions. They can be honorable, but they’re not to be criticized.

Ole Tunde: [21:01] Good. Let me add something to that. Great job, Lucy, agile leadership. I want to bring ex president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela in when you look at his predecessor FW Clark he led South Africa in a certain way that, that you know embodies the vision, the total division. When Nelson, I, I believe in, it was in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president the opposite people that actually doesn’t did not vote for him. Plus the people that voted for him, he listened to both of them. So kind of bring consensus to South Africa to this very day. The decision that Nelson Mandela made is what made South Africa, the way it is right now, it made it better, it made it together. It made it more structured, better economy based on the decision of him having in the early stage of what it’s called back then it wasn’t known agile mindset. The ability for leadership to bring people from opposite view together is a form of agile leadership.

Dan Neumann: [22:28] Yeah. And in listening to the dissenting views, that’s a, that’s a pretty interesting example of South Africa, and within, within corporations, then having a leader who isn’t shutting down alternate views or opposing views, because, you know, the example of Lucy, you are sharing of the airline industry. If somebody else was looking at the math and said, gosh, the cheap places, aren’t the ones where you should have planes because San Francisco’s a hub. And yes, the space is expensive, but canceled flights are more expensive. If nobody’s sharing those views. If the leader hasn’t created a welcoming environment for additional ideas, that’s going to be a problem for sure.

Ole Tunde: [23:16]

Dan Neumann: [23:18] What other as we’re getting here towards towards the back part what are some additional thought you folks have on, on agile leadership? So if somebody is like, I’m an agile leader how might, how might they know what might be some opportunities to continue growing down that path?

Ole Tunde: [23:36] Want to take that Lucy?

Lucy Lin: [23:38] Yeah, sure. So when we talking about the leadership they use they often use a term servant leadership, right? So you are not the boss, you are the servant. And the, one of the, the, the, the, for example, that the one of the speaker Sinek what’s his last name?

Dan Neumann: [24:05] Oh, Sinek. Simon Sinek. Is that who you have in mind?

Lucy Lin: [24:08] Well leaders eat last. So in, he always he always used the, the example of a parent. So he you went in one of his speech, he was talking about in one of the shootings was going on. The photographer was happened to be there. And he just happened to take a shot of the mother Sue herself her child when the gunshot started, when she heard the gunshot. So at that moment, that was no time to do the analysis of pros and cons, right. It just, in the basic instance, she threw herself up on the child to protect him. So this kind of leadership, that’s what we admire that what we would look up to, of course, this is a kind of extreme situations in not every moment, every day that we get caught to give up our life for our team, they were tense often. Then he will call to give up our interests for the interests of the team. I think this a lot of the daily decision that we made, right, will this benefit the team or what this does look me that make me look better. I think a servant leaders really have to think hard and to be a leader is a choice. We don’t have to be a leader, but if we want to be a leader, we have to be willing to sacrifice for the team.

Ole Tunde: [25:54] Hi, I love that. I love it. Can I jump in? I love that. Wow. So someone might ask then who can be a servant leader? Who can be an agile leader? It’s not about a matter of who we started about qualification. It’s the green knowledge influenced power, wealth, or even credit. Let me give you a better example. When you look at the jungle, then who is the king of the jungle?

Dan Neumann: [26:27] Last time I heard it was the lion, but they’re always sorta on Savannah’s when I see them in photos. So I don’t know how that became the lion.

Ole Tunde: [26:34] Yeah. So the lion you’re right. The lion let me ask you a question. Is the lion biggest and the jungle? No.

Dan Neumann: [26:45] No.

Ole Tunde: [26:47] Is the lion the smartest, the fastest, the most intelligent, the, the best looking the most influential? No, no, no, no, no, no. The lion is not because if you say he’s the biggest elephant is bigger. When you, if you say he’s, the fattest, cheetah is faster. If you say he’s the smartest, the monkey are smarter. The lion nonetheless is called the leader of the jungle, the king of the jungle. How does that relate to agile leader? You don’t have to be the smart as the smartest, the dumbest, or the biggest, the fastest, the most influential. You just have to be when the lion gets to anywhere. Everyone knows the lion, the king is there when the leader gets to the room and you are a servant leader, people will know just by you embody the spirit of that lion, or you embody the spirit of that servant leader. All you have to be is be, anyone can be an agile servant leader, an agile leader, just be humble, be coachable, be teachable, and have the, the ability to inspire others to action.

Dan Neumann: [28:03] Oh, thanks. Thanks for that. Yeah. It was like a pop quiz. Who’s the king of the gentlemen. I’m pretty sure it’s a lion, but we’re describing that. I got to thinking of an indicator of how comfortable your team is with you as a leader and kind of reflecting on how much ceremony sometimes goes into presenting to the big boss and the hours, days, weeks of preparation to tune the message, just so, and when I hear that, I’m like, oh, that doesn’t sound like you’re engaging with an agile leader. It doesn’t sound like you’re preparing for a collaboration to solve a problem. It sounds like you’re trying to get your stuff together so that it looks really, really good. Even if that means that we gloss over some things, that really aren’t very good. So I, that for me, I think could be an indicator of, are we dealing with somebody who leads by serving or are we dealing with somebody who’s willing positional authority and in leading to a degree through fear, so, okay. Interesting. Well, thank you for the exploration of agile leadership. Really appreciate both of you joining today. Tunde a repeat guest and Lucy will be a repeat guest to the next time you’re on. So very much. Thank you for joining.

Ole Tunde: [29:20] Fantastic. Thank you, Dan, for facilitating,

Dan Neumann: [29:24] Of course. We close out typically with a question about what’s on your agile leaders, your agile leadership what’s on your growth journey. I’ve got, my brain was thinking about what I was reading recently. And so I’m curious what might be on your, your continuous learning journey?

Ole Tunde: [29:42] Well, for me I want to master agile market and there’s a book I just bought. I’m looking at it right now. My library is by Andrea Fryrear fryrear, just like it’s announced because I think there’s a open space right now for how agile work in marketing. And I want to be I ahead of what the market is actually asking for to be able to implement agile in a different mindset in a market and environment.

Lucy Lin: [30:17]
Yes, so agile is a journey is a continuous improvement and it’s not a one size fits all. So now a lot of talks about agile tool, right? So I think I will be pay close attention to this idea too the new version of idea and what it will bring to us. So that’s what my next learning is.

Dan Neumann: [30:49] Super cool. I look forward to living vicariously through both of your learnings. And I just last night, of course, by the time this airs, it won’t have been last night, but I was reading a nice HBR article, Harvard business review article on agile C-suite. And what I liked about that was it gave some nice examples of an organization that had transitioned to a more agile footing and how the CEO, what types of things they were looking at versus the COO versus the chief financial officer. And I thought that was really nice to kind of ground agile leadership and a nice example of activity. So we’ll put links to the items you were referencing both of you were referencing and, and all the other fine things that were brought up in the show notes that people can get it at agilethought.com/podcast. So until next time Tunde, Lucy, thank you very much.

Ole Tunde: [31:46] Thank you, Dan. Great job.

Lucy Lin: [31:47] Thank you.

Outro: [31:49] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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