The Agile Leadership Paradox

The Agile Leadership Paradox

Agile is a mindset that encourages more cooperation. This principle makes the two words
agile and leadership seemingly contradictory since an agile organisation benefits from
hierarchy. How do we solve this friction between leadership and cooperation? By
replacing hierarchical with visionary leadership. Starting at the very top.


The concept of ‘Agile’ is a swift, active and nimble company mindset. It refers to the end goal
and not – what many seem to think – the road towards it. Different methods exist, Scrum and
Lean being the most famous. Ultimately though, these methods are all interchangeable. The
end goal is simply to be quicker on our feet by adopting a more cooperative or ‘horizontal
approach to sharing tasks and responsibilities. That is what ultimately makes us ‘agile’.

Companies adopting the agile mindset quickly experience positive results. On the ‘soft’ side
we see improved working conditions and more fun in the workspace. On the ‘hard’ side
revenue and profit go up. That is why we see many companies today who wish to adopt the
mindset. Leadership wants the organisation to become agile. And therein lies the problem.
It is not just the organisation that needs to transform to agile. Its leadership must go first.
Allow me to explain. When switch to agile, you’ll first see pockets of your company become
more nimble, soon followed by entire divisions and in the end, everyone has become agile.
The hierarchical ‘piramid’ becomes flat; even the tea lady can become an asset in improving
your companies’ inner workings.

When leadership doesn’t make the switch however, friction between the board and the rest
of the company is almost certain to occur. So instead the smaller pockets, we need to start
with leadership itself. We need to switch from top down, hierarchical leadership to what we
call ‘visionary leadership’. It all comes down to one thing: letting go of control.
For leaders, this can be counterintuitive. It is only natural for them to feel a responsibility to
maintain control. However a truly agile organisation is composed of people who become
self-sufficient and who – in time – will start to rebel against a leadership that wishes to
control their actions. The only way to resolve this friction is to make agile part of the overall
company vision and embed it in general management practices.

This means company leaders will need to inspire others to take more responsibility, instead
of giving them ‘orders’: visionary leadership. This is absolutely crucial for a successful agile
transformation. It is so vital even, that when we find that leadership prefers to maintain a
top down structure, we recommend forgoing an agile transformation all together. In such
cases we simply separate a few small agile R&D pockets. And keep them isolated.
That, in short, is the agile paradox: vertical commitment is vital to become horizontal. To
achieve this, one must view leadership as more than hierarchy. We should see it as
visionary. When leadership itself takes the first steps to agility, their team performance will
go up and the rest of the company will follow suit without any friction.
Rose Noordzij is Agile Coach at Wemanity and an expert in company transformations.

Share this story: