What Nobody Tells You About Leadership


Have something to say about leadership? Today (24 Feb) is your last chance to get in your submission to speak at this year’s Agile Australia 2017 Conference, kicking off in Sydney from 22-23 June. This year the Conference is themed around the topics of ‘Learning and Leading’. In today’s blog, AgileAus reviewer Melinda Harrington explains what nobody tells you about leadership.

Almost everyone who takes this quiz misses the first question. Here it is:

According to a post on the Scrum Alliance website, there are three benefits you can expect from a transition to Scrum. Which of the following is not one of those benefits:

  1. Faster delivery
  2. Communication
  3. Transparency
  4. Leadership

Answer: The three benefits of a transition to Scrum, as described in that article, are: Communication, Transparency and Leadership. Thus, the correct answer is A, “Faster Delivery”.

Not only do most people miss the right answer, they tend to select the same wrong answer. Most people choose “Leadership”. When asked to explain their choice, it is surprising to hear them say: “I don’t think leadership is a benefit of a transition to Scrum.”


Why are so many people missing leadership? I’ve been trying to figure this one out. Here are some of the answers I have come up with:

1. Leadership looks different now.

Everyone has a clear picture of what leadership looks like in traditional organisations. Leadership is top-down. The HIPPO (most highly paid person) decides on a course of action and instructs others to implement it. We lead this way because we see it modelled. People who act like that are promoted. It seems like the right approach. In contrast, Agile organisations aim for servant leadership, empowering, not directing.

When quiz participants say that leadership is not one of the benefits of a transition to Scrum, they are thinking of the kind of command and control leadership that they are familiar with. They don’t see a traditional approach as a benefit of a transition to Scrum. It’s not.

Leadership definitely is a benefit of a transition to Scrum – and any flavour of Agile. However, it is not necessarily easy to recognise.

While trying to cope with changes in the kinds of organisations we are evolving into, it’s harder to figure out what leadership actually looks like. It’s rarely modelled well so far. To know if we are heading in the right direction, it is important to visualise a new kind of leadership.

It is valuable to look outside of our own companies for examples of people who are modelling Agile leadership. One of the most inspiring aspects of the Agile community is how gracious the leaders are. This is a group of people who have embraced the concept of servant leadership. So many keynote speakers are happy to listen to novices.

Take the opportunity to learn about progressive leadership from anyone with experience. You will learn what you haven’t been taught.

2. Most of the change is taking place at the team level; the mindset of people in management hasn’t changed.

The Kanban concept of “Leadership at all levels” is a more fluid understanding of leadership; it’s not limited to the people at the top.

When transitioning to Scrum (and Kanban or other Agile approaches) positive examples of leadership at the team level are obvious.

For example, in my new team’s second Sprint, we experienced a planning poker moment when everyone in the room estimated the size of a PBI (product backlog increment) to be 2 or 3 except for one of the team members whose estimate was 8. This person never used to say a word before we started doing Scrum. One of our more vocal members said to him: “This is easy, we just did something in our last sprint that was exactly the same, it should be a 3.”

“When we did it in our last Sprint, it was an 8,” the quiet guy said. “Remember, our Agile Coach said we shouldn’t revise our estimates for things we have done before or our velocity will not truly reflect our improvement.” The team immediately changed their numbers to an 8. That’s leadership.

Leadership is not necessarily synonymous with management. However, it is not possible to truly get the full benefits of Scrum with team level leadership alone. Managers need to change too.

3. If you want different results it involves changes to your definition of leadership.

When a transition fails, we recognise that it was because the wider organisation – particularly management – didn’t embrace it. If that is the case, how is a successful transition led? If leadership is at every level, what are managers supposed to do?

In an organisation that aspires to follow Agile principles, leadership can be summed up in the following principle from the Agile Manifesto:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”1

A company still needs leaders. However, leaders need to evolve from “Command and Control”, to “Build, Give and Trust.” Training Scrum teams is vitally important but we can’t forget the management team also needs training.

4. Even when you understand how you should lead, it’s very difficult to do it.

As a command and control leader, I never experienced much angst. Identify what needs to be done, do it or get others to do it. Simple.

Now, I try to provide the environment and support that people need. However, I am always questioning.

  • Have I really changed?
  • Am I guiding too much?
  • Am I supporting enough?
  • Am I simply doing nothing?
  • Why do they need me at all?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. It is challenging to undertake.

Like a skilled teacher whose presence is not obvious in the classroom, an Agile leader sets the stage for success.

5. The quiz itself is tricky

Why isn’t Faster Delivery a benefit of a transition to Scrum? Actually, it might be. This is a trick question. It’s deliberately designed to encourage debate.

To clarify it, the purpose of this quiz was not to get the “right answer’’ but for job applicants to talk through what they thought was the right answer and why. This ensured that the discussions covered some challenging topics. The quiz was designed to uncover understanding of concepts rather than to regurgitate facts.

The main reason why this answer is wrong is that it simply wasn’t one of the three benefits listed in this particular article. The analysis is merely one person’s opinion. It is difficult to know how this individual feels about faster delivery in the early stages of Scrum adoption. It wasn’t the primary point.

People in leadership positions sometimes buy into Scrum (and other Agile approaches) because they see it as a way to get developers to deliver faster. We choose not to encourage that interpretation. Focussing on faster delivery alone overlooks mindset changes needed in organisations and individuals that provide greater benefits. Dwelling on the speed of delivering code may lead towards changes in practices rather than principles. Principles are crucial foundations.

Some examples of perfectly valid reasons people have given for picking “D (Faster Delivery)” include:

  • faster delivery of business value.
  • faster feedback cycles.
  • shorter iterations.

Those are worthy goals to strive for. If you achieve them in your transition, that’s great. However, it is important not to miss out on the benefits of leadership while you are at it.

1. The Agile Manifesto by: K. Beck, M. Beedle, A. van Bennekum, A. Cockburn, W. Cunningham, M. Fowler, J. Grenning, J. Highsmith, A. Hunt, R. Jeffries, Jon Kern, Brian Marick, Robert C. Martin, Steve Mallor, Ken Shwaber, Jeff Sutherland, (2001).

Submit to speak or register for Agile Australia 2017.

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