Enterprise Agility and Leadership: Transformational Leadership


A key requirement for Enterprise Agility in an organisation is leadership that fosters and nourishes the right culture and mindset for an agile organisation. The role of leadership in these organisations is selecting the right people and promoting an environment where people can learn from mistakes and improve. Leaders in Agile organisations make teams understand the big goals and step in to remove any obstacles. Good leaders adapt to changing needs and double as coaches where required.

 That is, they value ‘Transformational Leadership Over Directive Leadership’.

 Leaders communicate the vision for organisational transformation, provide the big picture and set the direction. But once this is done, the style that works best is one where leaders provide the required space for organisational units and teams to determine how they will execute on that vision, and enable and support them in delivering on it.

Transformational leadership is where a leader works with his or her teams to identify what needs to change and then put together a vision to steer the change through inspiration and creativity. The change is implemented along with fully committed members of the team. Transformational leadership improves the motivation, morale and performance of teams by aligning team members’ personal goals, and sense of identity and self, to the project being carried out and to the identity of the organisation. Leaders following this approach make themselves role models for teams and challenge team members to take ownership of their work. One key thing in this style of leadership is ensuring that team members are encouraged to take on tasks that magnify their abilities and performance.

Directive leadership, on the other hand, focuses on organising work and parcelling this out to team members, telling them what to do and how. In this case, leaders motivate their associates through discipline, using transactional approaches like the carrot and stick to drive results. This approach is very hierarchical. The main problem with this approach is that over time the work environment becomes toxic. In fact, pushing the values of directive leadership in the name of consistency and predictability militates against these very same requirements.

And note that good leadership encourages an environment where people can innovate, reflect on their experience, and learn from their mistakes. This needs a readiness to accept failures and recognise them as stepping stones to success.

How to get to Transformational Leadership

Organisations desiring to be Agile have come to the realisation that a traditional style of leadership, where leaders drive innovation, initiate projects, decide teams, hand out work, monitor progress and so on, does not suit an Agile environment.

 Traditional/ directive leadership, where the leader directs his followers on what to do and how to do it may be useful where the leader is, for example, leading a team of construction workers or a platoon of soldiers.

 This style of leadership, though very common, works negatively when dealing with highly skilled associates, especially if you are trying to implement Agile. People working within such a leadership structure need constant corrections in their direction of progress since they blindly, without any thought or reflection, follow what has been told to them. This creates inefficiencies and waste, and makes associates resentful.

The style of a true leader to identify the vision and goal of the organisation or the project along with the team members and identify the changes needed to reach that goal, again along with the team members. They then execute the change together.

 It was Bernard Bass, who, extending the work of James Burns, defined the four components of Transformational Leadership, calling it the 4 I’s. Idealized Influence, where the leader serves as a role model; Inspirational Motivation, where the leader inspires and motivates their followers; Individualized Consideration, where the leader has full empathy with his followers, and Intellectual Stimulation, where the leader stimulates his followers to challenge the existing scenario and innovate.

One of the main problems seen with hasty implementation of transformational style leadership is that when there is a crunch leaders fall back into their tried and tested approach of directive leadership. Of course, there may be situations when this switch is warranted, especially any mission critical ones. But this must be carefully monitored.

There are good examples of people who used transformational leadership to the very end and led people to achieve lofty goals. Mahatma Gandhi for instance. Other examples are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

One of the key things needed for transformational leadership to work is to have processes in place to get feedback from people at all levels as and when needed. And in addition to the daily stand-ups, retros and other Agile practices, one-on-ones, suggestion and feedback ‘boxes’ are also needed. Another thing needed is skip-level meetings. This gives an opportunity for an associate to talk about issues, problems, obstacles to progress, and opportunities for improvement. Also, good surveys are needed with a good set of questions to assess the effectiveness of leadership.

The other process that needs emphasis is regular communication, which makes for full transparency at all levels. Also, people at all levels need to be given access to the leaders of the organisation, as needed.

Ensuring the right culture and Mindset

First, the most important culture that one needs to bring in for transformational leadership to succeed, is to ensure that people do not give in to the temptation of micromanaging. Transformational leaders set the vision and goals with their teams, and do not micromanage the achievement of these goals. Now, how does one bring about this mindset?

The whole leadership team needs to decide that they will not be looking over the shoulders of their team members, even if there is a crisis. They need to avoid the temptation of ‘helicopter managing’, or managers controlling every aspect of an associate’s work, or micromanaging. Sometimes they must physically stay away from teams that are going through some sort of crisis. This will be difficult. It will take a lot of mental resolve on the part of the managers. And it will take many months before they realise that this approach works.

Sometimes, even though they do not micromanage, some managers cannot resist the temptation to jump in to correct what the team is doing. A manager may say, ‘I know how to code. I was a great coder in my days. So, if my team is facing a great issue with a bug that is difficult to fix, I will just jump right in and start debugging the problem myself. This way, I am only acting as an additional hand for the team.’ This is a great temptation for people. The thinking is that since I was a great coder once, I can still code and debug. What this manager does not realise is that coding techniques and tools have changed over time, and even if she is good at coding, her jumping in may become a nuisance rather than a help.

 The main problem is changing entrenched mindsets. One of the things to do is to look for clues that tell the organisation what the mindset of the people is. And then, encourage people to move towards being transformational leaders. For example, you may find managers who are frequently interrupting when their teams were talking, not listening actively, and not communicating enough. These indicate that they were not fully ‘with’ their teams. HR teams and others must talk to these managers to encourage them to change their approach.

Another this is to reinforce respecting people’s boundaries. It is important not to go beyond boundaries that are not appropriate for peoople to step over. Even non-aggressive acts of boundary violations like gossiping, assuming you understand what another person is thinking, saying offensive things accidentally, and second-guessing need to be discouraged.

Another area is trust among people. Being trusting and trustworthy will go a long way towards building a transformational leadership environment.

One key aspect is, in the transformational leadership style, the leader, at any level, should give up their personal desire for success. It is always to be a success that is shared with the team. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a leader’s desire for success and the team’s desire for success. Ideally it should be the same.

There is a very new term that is doing the rounds in the psychology circles. It is ‘Social Intelligence (SI)’ which is looked at with what is called ‘Social Quotient (SQ)’. SI goes one level above Emotional Intelligence (EI). It is the ability to lock onto the wavelength of other people’s emotions, and be able to subconsciously read other people’s body language and other cues to formulate the right response to a particular situation that makes for the best results for everyone. SQ has still not been fully studied yet. But it will be a very powerful tool in the future. We can be sure that high levels of SQ would be needed for Transformational Leadership and other factors required for effectively being Agile.

Creating the right organisation for success

To create the right organisation for success in transformational leadership, the organisation needs to change their hiring practices to ensure that they hire people not based on future requirements but those who can fit into the new culture of the organisation. They need to spread the message that they are an organisation that believes in and practices a leadership style that involves their associates in creating and executing the vision of the organisation – an inclusive leadership style, so to speak. That their leaders do not sit in ivory towers, creating their vision, and then directing their associates to do this and this and that. Also, all associates need to follow high ethical and moral standards. This will attract a lot of believers to their fold.

Nowadays people looking for jobs check whether the leaders’ vision matches their own, and whether the leaders of the organisation will help them in realising their goals. They are keen to know if leaders can help them steer through the rough seas of change. And most of all, they want to know if the leaders have credibility.

The organisation needs to hire people with the culture and mindset for the new environment. And, when you hire someone with the required culture and mindset, they become a valuable asset even if the job they were hired for has become defunct. They can be moved to another position and will still be valuable.

Organisations also need to train their leaders to become coaches rather than mentors or managers. These leaders could then encourage their people to get the best out of others to define and create solutions, without having to lead them. Some of the training areas are: Navigating uncertainty and paradoxes, using personal influence to manage complex scenarios and change, vision architecting and thought leadership, encouraging others to excel, practising humility in the face of success and composure in the face of failure, and accepting failure as a stepping stone to success. Also, the ability to deal with uncertainty and change, initiative, openness to feedback and learning, accepting accountability and ownership, ability to work with others and goal orientation.

Another need is to create very flat organisational structures. The maximum number of levels is empirically seen to be four, even in a very large organisation. A CEO’s level, an executive and strategic leadership level, an operational leadership level and then, the engineers and other contributors. This flat structure helps in the automatic formation of self-organising teams when needed.  This also helps leaders work with contributors to inspire, motivate, and coach them.

It is not enough for existing leaders to be transformational. The organisation they create should be one where transformational leaders emerge. As leaders emerge, they are coached and mentored to become transformational leaders. This will be an organisation where intellectual stimulation happens and allows for innovation.

Role of Executive Leadership in fostering Transformational Leaders

The first thing that executive leadership should do is to send out signals to their teams that failure of an initiative is not a personal failure. People are then willing to take up new initiatives and own them. Since there is no penalty for failing at an initiative, provided all the due diligence was done, new ideas keep pouring in.

Another key thing to work on is inclusiveness. Leaders sitting in their ivory towers looking at the ‘big picture’ is not what is needed. All stakeholders need to be involved in ensuring the success of the organisation. And this inclusiveness is without any implied hierarchy or status levels.

Another important thing is that people are encouraged to take initiatives and take decisions without having to check back with their managers every time. One of the key challenges in these situations is ensuring the integrity of people. It should be emphasised that people should make the need for high ethical standards second nature to them. Emphasising the need to keep to high moral standards is another important factor.

 Gender-sensitivity training is another key need. With self-organising teams and transformational leadership, where people are not closely supervised, sometimes it is easy to slip into stereotypical, highly-entrenched patriarchal, attitudes. While this may not happen in such a way as to create any hurt in people, unless people are sensitized, sometimes things may get out of hand. Remember, these days gender is not seen as binary. It is a spectrum. And many people, including the so-called ‘modern’ people do not understand this. One should get people out of any residual thinking based on assumptions of traditional and outdated views on the roles of men and women.

The true need is inclusiveness. Inclusiveness of women and of other under-represented groups.

Technical Excellence, Tools, Infrastructure and Processes

One informal process, to be followed, for the success of Transformational Leadership, is to gather information about what goes on, both internally and externally. This is important to ensure that leaders and others are influencers.

External information like what competitors are doing, the change in the technology canvas, how well the organisation is perceived by customers, and how well their social media strategy is working (this is important to influence the millennials and the Gen Z folks). And internal information like progress of the different divisions, the work they do, and the challenges facing different parts of the organisation.

Another process to be followed is to ensure continuity in leadership. Such a leadership style as transformational leadership cannot thrive if leaders change often. Too many changes will affect transformational leadership. Each new leader comes in with a new style and new ideas. This can be very disruptive to the long-term success of the teams. Even if new leaders’ ideas and style are consistent with what teams are used to, it takes some time for these leaders to understand the organisation, the teams, and the processes. Of course, sometimes leadership changes are necessary, but having too many such changes is a problem.

And leaders should look the part. People follow others who look important. So, good grooming is important for such leaders.

Metrics like the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) proposed by Bernard M. Bass can be used to measure leadership style and outcomes. It is a psychological questionnaire that consists of 45 items to assess leadership styles and leadership outcomes. It is a 360-degreee assessment tool.

Another key area is simplifying and/ or removing unnecessary processes. Like, processes that require approval from executive management for operational things. It is also important to get rid of processes that require many things to be kept only in the know of ‘top’ management. For example, many organisations have processes that restricts financial information within the ambit of ‘business management groups’. It is considered that if, say, the technical teams have access to financial data like profits from a project, it would affect the way they work. The key to Agile is more transparency.

Stakeholder analysis is another process that needs to be regularly done. This is constantly classifying stakeholders in terms of their influence and importance, and keep them involved appropriately.

 Another key set of processes needed is ones to dole out recognition for deserving associates and teams and for regular skill development and training regime that benefit the organisation’s associates.

Processes are also needed to identify slackers and improve their performance – and if these improvement efforts don’t work, to get rid of them. Slackers will affect the morale of good performers.

Problem Signals

Some of the key signals of problems with Transformational Leadership, the manifestations of these problems and suggested approach to address each of these is given in the table below. 

Problem Signal Manifestations Suggested approach to address
Switching to directive leadership when in a crunch   Managers looking for “crises” to step in and help out – feeling happy they were able to resolve crises   More “crunch” situations than you would normally expect to have Allowing teams to work through “crises” by themselves till they genuinely feel they need help from you   Treating failures / crisis situations as learning opportunities for the team
Managers interfering at working level     Many tech decisions made by managers – not the team   Managers wanting to be actively involved in tech reviews   Too many questions on implementation level from managers Managers practicing “active” listening and the power of questions to understand situations and coach / guide the team   Involving senior technical folks in the team for tech reviews (coach them if needed)   Respecting people’s boundaries
Not distinguishing between the leader’s goals and the team’s goals.             Leaders driving team commitments   Leaders projecting themselves ahead of the team in communication / reporting   Relatively low team ownership Leadership development and coaching to ensure they understand team and organisation come ahead of their own individual aspirations and goals
Culture focus inhibiting hiring of top-class talent Difficulty hiring top notch people   High rejection ratio overall and specifically of highly qualified candidates Look for attitudes in hiring not ready fit into a specific culture – adaptability, openness to learning and change are the key
Not doing gender sensitisation     Insensitivity to gender observed in team meetings / group forums   Observing stereotypical attitudes (from a gender perspective) Gender sensitisation should be a part of the company induction process   Leadership demonstrating gender sensitivity   Inclusiveness of women and other underrepresented groups  
Not watching for problems that could happen with a diffident leader.   Leaders who are too self-conscious / have a feeling of insecurity   Leaders who avoid confronting people or take responsibility to provide directions to team as needed Leadership development   Ensuring right people in the right leadership roles of (sometimes even diffident leaders, if they are otherwise good, may succeed with teams that are strong technically/functionally and collaborate well)
Not identifying and dealing with slackers     Team leader sensing lack of productive work due to slackers slowing down and disrupting team’s commitments   Team’s inability to deliver commitments frequently Coaching / other interventions for identified slackers   Performance improvement plans in select cases as needed   Involuntary separation in cases where interventions and improvement plans don’t work

(The above is a a summarized extract from PM Power’s book, The Five Tantras of Enterprise Agility)

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