Leadership in Agile Projects

Author: Belal Juma (17 Aug 2016)

I’ve been reviewing some academic journal papers and online materials to understand more about the role of ‘leader’ in agile projects (see references). I was astonished how leadership theories were evolved from a basic ‘hero!’ model of leadership to become more of a social process. Looking through the lenses of the social process model of leadership demystifies many of the principles and practices embraced by the agile project management methods currently followed in the software industry.

To start with, the academia revealed two main themes of leadership which are the traditional/mainstream and discursive (socially-constructive) leadership theories. Traditional/Mainstream leadership theories characterize leadership as heroic and ego-centric approach; whereas discursive leadership theories view leadership as a social process between people which emerges through interactions and daily discourse. Mainstream leadership theories capture a simplified and coherent version of the world and position the leader as a discrete individual who can change situations by applying leadership techniques, principles or strategies. Leaders can be in a complex, un-certain and un-predictable situations where such simplistic view of leadership does not necessarily help in overcoming such situations (Cunliffe and Erikson (2011), Collinson (2005) and Fairhurst (2009)).

Such a stance of embracing ‘leadership as a social process’ is recognized and supported in the software industry by the agile movement. The Agile Manifesto, written by some of the world’s prominent software practitioners, states explicitly that building and delivering software applications is better to be done through self-organizing team; the team that reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly (agilemanifesto.org, 2001). Scrum agile framework described self-organizing teams as teams which “choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team” (Scrum Alliance, 2014). Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) work that had been published in Harvard Business Review and inspired the creation of Scrum agile framework (Sutherland, J., 2011) stated that a team possesses a self-organizing capability when it exhibits autonomy, self-transcendence, and cross-fertilization.

Although the agile community advocates that agile team is a self-organizing team that exhibits shared/distributed leadership amongst its members, which is a shift from the traditional model of leadership; but still the industry is not clear on how to empower the self-organizing team to exercise such a shared/distributed leadership and under what circumstances to shift to the traditional leadership approach. Neither the Agile Manifesto nor the Scrum agile framework specify what role is responsible for, and how to, building trust and harmony between agile team members to enable them as a team to direct and control the project autonomously and collectively. Many industry practitioners tried to fill this gap by suggesting a leader from outside the team who gradually gives more control to the team once they establish trust between them and prove they can communicate effectively (Mandarino, P., 2012). Some other practitioners advised on appointing an agile leader only in case of projects that are complex and big with many teams involved, or in cases of cross functional projects that may have an impact on the culture inside the organization (Kniberg, H., 2015). The agile leader guides the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of the agile team members but not specifying in advance the behavior of the team (Cohn, M., 2010); and the agile leader needs to work across the organization to create a work system that enables teams to deliver value to customers and the organization (Esther, d., 2011). Some practitioners believe that this agile leader is actually the Scrum Master role itself (Cohn, M., 2010) which only works as a guide to the team and is not supposed to influence how the team will go about building the intended product (Scrum Alliance, 2014). Others see the need of different types of agile leaders based on the context, such as agile project manager (Mandarino, P., 2012), agile manager, agile program manager, agile account manager or just an agile coach which is typically the Scrum Master (Johanna, 2014).

My view on this is management needs to empower development teams to be true agile, self-organizing teams who can autonomously and collectively direct and control the product development. Until that fully happens, there should be a transitioning period with the help of external agile leaders, such as agile project manager, who should help the agile team in creating an environment of trust and high collaboration without influence team’s decisions on how to build the product. Management role in general is absolutely needed even for fully self-organizing agile team as management is responsible for defining constraints around the product being built, marketing the product once finished and motivate each individual while the project is undergoing.


Agile Manifesto (2001), ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’, available at: http://agilemanifesto.org, viewed on 06 August 2016

Cunliffe, A. and Erikson, M. (2011). Relational leadership. Human Relations, 64(11): 1425-1449. DOI 10.1177/0018726711418388

Collinson, D. (2005). Dialectics of leadership. Human Relations, 58(11): 1419-1442. DOI 10.1177/0018726705060902

Cohn, M. (2010), ‘The Role of Leaders on a Self-Organizing Team’, available at: https://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/blog/the-role-of-leaders-on-a-self-organizing-team, viewed on 06 August 2016

Derby, E. (2011), ‘Misconceptions about Self-Organizing Teams’, available at: http://www.estherderby.com/2011/07/misconceptions-about-self-organizing-teams-2.html, viewed on 09 August 2016

Fairhurst, G. (2009). Considering context in discursive leadership research. Human Relations, 62(11): 1607-1633. DOI 10.1177/0018726709346379

Johanna (2014), ‘Which “Scrum Master” Are You Hiring?’, available at:http://www.jrothman.com/articles/2014/09/which-scrum-master-are-you-hiring, viewed on 12 August 2016

Mandarino, P. (2012), ’Leadership in An Agile Environment’, available at:  https://www.thoughtworks.com/insights/blog/leadership-agile-environment, viewed on 07 August 2016

Scrum Alliance (2014), ‘The Scrum Guide’, available at: https://www.scrumalliance.org/why-scrum/scrum-guide, viewed on 06 August 2016

Takeuchi, H. and Nonaka, I. (1986), ‘The New New Product Development Game’, available at: https://hbr.org/1986/01/the-new-new-product-development-game, viewed on 06 August 2016

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