Agile leadership characteristics – 3 core competencies

Agile Leadership Characteristics - Leader presenting to office workers

Leadership principles tend to be quite ubiquitous since they can apply to so many types of people and situations. It is often hard to improve upon profound statements and insights, especially when they are simple and make the point so clearly. I’m thinking specifically about Peter Drucker’s statement “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

I want to draw on the experiences and work I’m involved in to make the article a bit more specific and real. A large part of the work I am involved in deals with discussions on how IT and business organizations can improve the way they are delivering a product or service. The work often includes a dialogue around shaping a large company’s existing processes so that they can see dramatic improvements without getting caught up in the next big buzzword or fad.

This often means that there is a leadership discussion at hand simply because the topic of change, whether related to process, methodology, project delivery, outsourcing, portfolio management, etc., directly affects cultural impact and the mind-shift that needs to happen at the leadership level mostly.

For example, in large enterprises it is especially hard to walk in with an “agile” message and expect everyone to fall into rank. Companies don’t really intend to buy buzzwords; they buy outcomes and for many organizations, agile is still an isolated victory on a project that is spreading slowly in IT. To then provide the agile leadership needed to make it more widespread in both IT and business areas requires looking at the landscape differently in order to understand how the right sets of practices can be best applied.

One other consideration. In business we’re really good at counting the cost of doing anything. We are required to do it in order to be responsible and accountable. We want to ensure that we are using time, talent and resources as best as possible to get the maximum return. We also need to count the cost of not doing something, or rather the “right things”.

If leadership is about doing the right things then we must be able to define what the “right things” are in our organizations and teams. It requires a continuous introspection and retrospection of what we say and do so we can hone and shape as often as necessary to stay on course. That’s another way of saying we need to admit change is needed and that what we’re doing now may not be working.

For the many principles we employ and values we practice, I want to call out 3 core characteristics of leadership as a function that support doing the “right things”. I say as a function because the idea of leadership is not tied to a title but rather to any individual that is in a position where they must make critical business decisions, choices, influence people and be responsible for results… sounds like many of us. These 3 core characteristics underpin the functional aspect of leadership and make it work.

I want to provide brief definitions of each word but before that let’s also define what we mean by function.

Function is defined as the kind of action or activity that is proper to a person or organization; the purpose for which something is designed (in this case leadership) or exists; role.

These 3 core characteristics define agile leadership and how it plays out in the functional role it’s designed for. Again, regardless of the experience, skills, competencies and learning we bring to the “function”, without these three it is simply too hard to see how it can work effectively and make the difference between good and great leadership and especially ensuring we are doing the “right things”.

The 3 core characteristics at work in the leadership function can be defined in differing ways so I’ve taken a simplistic approach to describe three ways for each:


The adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

  • Courage to tell the truth in a constructive manner
  • Willingness to make tough decisions for the betterment of the organization
  • Openness about what is working and what isn’t


Confident expectation of something or someone, reliance.

  • Relied upon by others to keep our commitments and our word
  • Responsible to deliver the highest quality work and results
  • Ownership mentality about the business and it’s resources


Recognizable and detectable, able to see through.

  • Communicate information based on facts not assumptions
  • Proactive in sharing progress, challenges, risks, issues and blockers
  • Acknowledgement of what we don’t know in order to learn from others