Agile Leadership — a behavior-based competency model

This article is written by Dr. Stefanie Puckett, an author of the Agile Culture Code Assessment featured on Comparative Agility.

A lot do we talk but little do we know about agile leadership. Which behaviors does it imply? Which competencies? And how does it differ from traditional leadership? The results of a global study might shed some empirically established light on the topic.

Organizations need to adapt to a “digital vortex” (Bradley et al., 2015), a market that is highly prone to disruption, a focus on the customer that demands not only connected solutions and outstanding customer experience but also speed. As a response, the way we work is changing, and agile principles and methods help to keep up with the requirements.

When the way we work is changing, the way we lead has to be changing, too. But how? There is little literature available that helps understand, how exactly agile leadership looks like. Yes, we`ve read the agile manifesto. Yes, we are familiar with the concept of servant leadership. We also know how to eliminate line management positions by dividing power and transferring it to different roles. However, leadership goes beyond that. Agile leadership needs to create advancement.

The Global Center for Digital Business Transformation wanted to find out, what exactly agile leadership looks like. For them, IMD Business School in Switzerland teamed up with metaBeratung, a specialized consulting firm in Germany to conduct a global study to find answers (Neubauer, Tarling & Wade, 2017). They conducted 19 expert interviews with digital leaders from all over the world and analyzed data from a global survey with 1042 leaders.

The study did not start from scratch but built on insights of the IMD Business School (Bradley et al., 2015) into what sets companies apart that successfully navigate through highly disrupted markets: To sustain in spite of or through digital disruption requires three behaviors outlined below. The study confirmed that these mark highly relevant leadership behaviors in accordance.

Agile leadership requires three behaviors and four competencies.

Three behaviors of agile leadership:


Conditions on the market, technology developments, and evolving customer needs are constantly monitored. The newest information, as well as real-time data, is collected. Dedicated resources are allocated to make hyperawareness a priority.


Intuition plays a role in leadership decisions. However, data-driven decision-making is a set requirement. Analyzing and evaluating information and data is key for informed decision-making.


Speed over perfection. Execution has to happen fast. Speed is prioritized over perfection, over planning, and risks are taken.

The three behaviors help leaders and their organizations meet the requirements deriving from changing market conditions but are not sufficient to enable and sustain agility in the organization. Based on the data, four leadership competencies were identified that set agile leadership apart from traditional leadership (HAVE model; Neubauer et al., 2017; elaborated by Puckett & Neubauer, 2018/ 2020).

Four competencies of agile leadership — the HAVE model:


Leaders are no longer experts. No single mind can comprehend today`s complexity. Good leaders are constantly learning. This requires listening to others, admitting one`s weaknesses or nescience, and regarding feedback. Agile leadership happens on equal footing.


Complexity and the speed of change require leaders not to shy away from changing direction and revising decisions. Being open to changing your mind when new information becomes available is as important as the flexibility to stop or revise undertakings even once they started.


Agile leadership means providing a vision and wearing it on your sleeve. This is to set an inspiring and ambitious long-term goal and provide orientation. With changes of direction — course corrections are required, and the vision is written in stone.


Leadership happens in interactions. Leaders need to be highly engaged with internal and external stakeholders, with their employees and peers, and well connected outside of the organization. This enables them to know what is going on and to have a broad reach to communicate and realize their ideas, to connect and activate people.

In agile organizations, responsibility is shared, and leadership happens from everywhere within the organization. This is why we might not see too many agile leaders in a given organization. However, we might see a lot of agile leadership, evolving from an agile corporate culture that supports agility (for more see “The agile culture Code” Puckett, 2020 b).

More than ever, leadership means making a difference by connecting, inspiring, and activating people to accomplish more than each individual would have achieved by himself. Going beyond what was considered possible.

This article was previously shared here.



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