Agile Leadership: What’s All the Buzz About? Part I

During the past several years, the phrase “Agile Leadership” has received a lot of attention.  A lot has been written about agile leadership, and it seems to be today’s HOT BUTTON in the world of leadership practice.

However, when a “new” leadership model, such as Agile Leadership, is created, often questions arise: “In what ways does this model offer something different?”  “Is it distinct from preceding models?” “Is it just a repackaging, under a new name, of leadership concepts or styles that are associated with other leadership theories, done in such a way that give these concepts a renewed energy?

Here’s what I’ve noted about this issue at times.  Often, instability in the business world and other contexts occur in response (or lack thereof) to challenging and changing internal and external circumstances.  As these changes become more evident and permanent, leadership theorists sometimes respond by developing new concepts of leadership they believe are more effective in this “new normal.”

Joseph Rost’s model, for instance, was based on his notion that current leadership concepts were out-of-date because they were based on what he called the “industrial paradigm .  He concluded that we were in a new world of business, the “post-industrial paradigm,” and a new model of leadership was necessary to be successful.

This reaction can also occur when leaders of companies, especially of big ones, act in ways that brings down their organizations. Authentic leadership, with its emphasis on the need for positive, ethical, transparent leaders, for instance, was the response to the number of such instances in the early 2000’s (Enron, Tyco, etc.).

Rost’s model was considered novel whereas authentic leadership did draw on some previously articulated leadership-related ideas (although not exclusively) .  So, in the history of leadership theory development, models can be unique, and sometimes they are less unique and distinctive.

What about Agile Leadership?  Where does it fall on this unique-less unique continuum?How and when did this word Agile appear?  And when did enter the leadership and management mainstream?

Actually, the term Agile was first used not as a leadership model but rather to describe a new process for developing software applications, website development, etc.  At the time, the current process was increasingly viewed as ineffective and inefficient.

Responding to this concern, in the early 2000’s, a group of IT professions gathered to address the need for a better approach and, as a result, created the concept of Agile computing.   To make it clear to the IT world that they were on to something new and revolutionary,  they wrote what is called “The Agile Manifesto” to describe the twelve principles that laid the foundation for all of the structure and processes that today make up Agile IT.

By 2006-07, the first books and articles about Agile Leadership began to appear.  The authors posited that in this context of agile software development, a new type of leadership was needed.  They wrote about the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment in which organizations find themselves.  Thus, this VUCA, required a  type of leadership that could respond more quickly and effectively to these increasingly present external challenges.  Enter Agile Leadership.

Alright, enough history.

In my Part II – Agile Leadership blog, I’ll a bit dig deeper into the specific characteristics and behaviors of agile leaders and what they must do to create “agile organizations.”

In the meantime, take care.

Jim Dittmar

Dr. James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute, through which he creates and delivers training and development that is transformational.  Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Orprofessional pic single 4.25.17ganizational Leadership Program in 1995 and served as Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies and Director of the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program until 2015. Should you have any questions, comments or feedback, please contact him at


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8 thoughts on “Agile Leadership: What’s All the Buzz About? Part I

  1. Great article on this particular subject. It would change the world for the better when used properly. Unfortunately it has been used improperly in some places and has cost folks their jobs.


    1. Ken, I agree. Like any leadership model, if applied with the proper motive, it becomes distorted. Bernard Bass referred to leader with a selfish motive a “pseudo” transformational leader. Thanks for commenting, Ken.

      Jim Dittmar


  2. Interesting article and thank you for the background.

    As I read about the VUCA environment, I was reminded that the VUCA elements continue to increase in magnitude. – there is much talk today about leading in the digital age, impact of AI, and what the workforce of the future looks like – all factors in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. I think that two key elements of leadership for today are awareness and adaptability. Through it all, however, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are serving/leading people and people can only change so fast.

    I look forward to Part II.


  3. The history or origin of Agile Development that was used in the IT model was based on a lean manufacturing process known as Kanban. Kanban signals a demand-pull requirement that simulates process control from upstream work stations with the rate of ‘flow’ determined by customer demand. It’s really an iteration process of continuous improvement.


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