An "align - empower" Modell of agile leadership

Like everything agile, »agile leadership« has become a popular buzzword in business and organizational life. Despite its frequent use however, agile leadership is a fuzzy concept still. “Something about self-organization and servant leadership”, is the answer you usually get when asking around. The conceptual vagueness leads organizations to discuss agile leadership without a comprehensive and differentiated understanding of the agile leadership landscape. This can lead to misconceptions, frustration, and conflict in agile transformation and related leadership development initiatives and may eventually hamper organizational effectiveness.

In the whitepaper The 'Align - Empower' Model of Agile Leadership, we aim to succinctly discuss the various ideas that have been floating around the concept and based on that introduce a comprehensive framework, the »Align – Empower« Model of Agile Leadership.

Lack of Concept Clarity

Various reasons add to the fuzziness of agile leadership as a concept. We will discuss them here. You may skip this section, if you are primarily interested in the structure and contents of the »Align – Empower« Model.

  • Agile leadership is a hybrid concept involving building blocks from various sources. More specifically, it borrows from well-established constructs such as »transformational leadership«, »servant leadership«, »empowering leadership«, or »psychological safety«. That’s probably why academic researchers consider it unworthy of scientific attention – it’s neither novel nor unique nor conceptually clean. In fact, to this date no authoritative model of agile leadership has emerged from academic research. Because of that the concept has not yet undergone the structuring and standardization that comes with empirical research.
  • At the same time, various consultants and consultancy firms have introduced models of agile leadership or related concepts. Since consultancy firms are eager to gain profile with their very own conceptions and products, no authoritative model has emerged from this domain either – competition counters the need for concept standardization.
  • Another aspect that adds to the ambiguity of agile leadership is the mingling of conceptual perspectives or building blocks. Typically, the frameworks introduced by consultants and consultancy firms are hybrid clusters of leadership principles, tasks, and behaviors but also attitudes, mindsets, and personality traits, not structured along a coherent theory or guiding model. The mingling of concepts is present even in sophisticated frameworks such as the IMD model (Neubauer, Tarling & Wade, 2017) which is the conceptual backbone of Hogan’s Agile Leader Assessment. This model defines seven aspects of agile leadership; four aspects are attitudinal or mindset-related: humble, adaptable, visionary, and engaged; three other aspects are focused on leading business (in terms of navigating the organization and optimizing its environmental fit): hyperawareness, informed decision-making, and fast execution.



We are introducing the »Align – Empower« Model of Agile Leadership, a framework that seeks to integrate the various ideas that have been floating around the agile leadership concept.





The »Why« of Agile Leadership: Mastering »VUCA«

There is much consensus about the »why« of agile leadership: Its purpose is to enable people and teams to perform effectively in highly dynamic business environments. »VUCA« has become the standard term to describe such business environments:

  1. volatile (accelerated speed and dynamics of change),
  2. uncertain (lack of predictability of events),
  3. complex (number, diversity, and interdependence of variables influencing events),
  4. ambiguous (lack of clarity of information).

In environments extremely charged with VUCA, process knowledge remains immature. Process knowledge is what a team or organization knows about how to produce desired results. To the extent that boundary conditions such as customer demands, technology, or competition are highly dynamic and impossible to predict and control, process knowledge is in flux because yesterday’s insights about if-then relations may not (fully) apply to the challenges of today let alone tomorrow.

»VUCA« environments and related process knowledge immaturity require a much higher level of responsiveness, flexibility, and speed in dealing with business challenges and customer demands. And that’s what agile leadership is about: enabling responsiveness, flexibility, and speed to meet performance expectations or stakeholder/customer demands where business environments are charged with »VUCA« and process knowledge is immature.

The »How« of Agile Leadership: Balancing divergence and conver-gence or empowerment and alignment, respectively

Agile leadership aims to create work environments where people and teams can meet performance expectations or stakeholder/customer demands despite »VUCA« making their work much more difficult. To achieve this, an agile leader needs to arrange for two things: adaptiveness and overall alignment (across teams and with goals and standards).

Let's have a look at ways to foster adaptiveness, first. Here are the major ideas that have been discussed in the professional world so far:

  • Give autonomy or decision-making discretion so people and teams can act on changes quickly and in ways well adapted to the situation at hand. This seems to be the most common understanding of agile leadership (Koning, 2020; Medinilla, 2012).
  • Provide support – task- or process-related as well as emotional – to help people overcome barriers and setbacks. This idea is represented by the »servant leadership« concept, initially developed by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018).
  • Enable an iterative or explorative approach to problem-solving. This involves moving toward a solution by spiraling between prototyping and feedback or experimentation and reflection, respectively. These ideas are featured in all major agile frameworks (Scrum, Design Thinking, OKR).
  • Use tension – that is, friction, conflict, disruption – productively, namely as a driving force for optimization and innovation. In his conception of agile leadership, Hayward (2018) underscores the need for agile leaders to disrupt the organization, that is, to challenge the status quo and spark new ways of thinking. Dealing with tension in productive ways is also a key feature in Holacracy (Cowan, 2018).

From our point of view, there is a common denominator to these aspects, namely: allowing, enabling, and fostering divergence – that is, room for maneuver, decision-making discretion, multitude and diversity of options and possibilities, creativity, contradiction and dissonance, rethinking – to expand options for action and boost adaptiveness. We are using the term »empowerment« to reference this idea since its more descriptive and well-established in current discourse.

The »What« of Agile Leadership: Six Leadership Practices

The generic leadership framework we introduced in previous publications (e.g., Solga, 2021b; see grey box and Figure 1 below for a short summary) provides an excellent foundation for bringing structure to the »What« of agile leadership, that is, to the different practices and corresponding actions. In fact, the agile leadership model can be seen as a specification of the broader »3x2« Leadership Framework.

The »3x2« Leadership Framework in a Nutshell

  • As a generic framework of team and people leadership, »3x2« defines three overarching leadership challenges – »navigate«, »engage«, and »develop« – that are in specific ways linked to three purposes: driving goal achievement (»deliver«), inspiring voluntary/discretionary pro-organizational behavior (»commit«), and boosting learning, innovation, and agility (»grow«).
  • Each of these challenges involves two aspects – »support« and »challenge« – reflecting the give and take in a manager´s cooperative exchange with team members. »Challenge« practices are focused on advancing organizational interests, »support« practices are focused on supporting the reciprocal needs and expectations of employees.
  • This yields 3 x 2 = 6 distinct leadership practices that we refer to as »motivate« (giving esteem, inspiration, and care), »infuse« (nurturing value-orientation), »facilitate« (giving task-related support and leeway), »focus« (giving direction, creating alignment), »coach« (supporting capability and career development), and »innovate« (fostering critical thinking and exploration).
  • The framework highlights the need to balance these leadership practices for leaders to be effective in the long term.

»Alignment« and »Empowerment« practices

So, agile leadership involves six practices carried out to create an environment of »aligned empowerment«. The common purpose of these practices is to help people and teams solve problems, deliver results, and meet stakeholder or customer demands in business environments that are charged with »VUCA« and entail a strong need to act on challenges and changes flexibly and with speed. Three practices are focused on promoting alignment, three other practices are focused on giving empowerment.

»Alignment« practices

  • Motivate: Giving esteem, inspiration, and care to inspire emotional engagement and, with it, »emotional alignment«. This is based on the following rationale: We protect and support what we feel emotionally attached to. The acronym »PARIS« specifies what this practice is about: Give positive attention, recognition, inspiration, and emotional s
  • Infuse: Creating value orientation and commitment to the purpose and values of the organization (»normative alignment«). Here, acting as a role model is crucially important and making fairness tangible in all its aspects is key (from inquiring about others’ expectations to taking decisions in a well-balanced and principled way to creating transparency to treating people with respect).
  • Focus: This practice is about creating a shared understanding of goals and priorities, roles and responsibilities, processes and practices, and crucial boundary conditions. Its focus is on »task alignment« within teams and across the organization.

»Empowerment« practices

  • Facilitate: This practice is about providing resources, removing obstacles, enabling self-organization, and giving decision-making discretion. With it, its focus is on »structural empowerment«.
  • Coach: This practice is about promoting effectiveness and efficiency through coaching. In comparison to »facilitate« which is focused on building boundary conditions in a structural sense, the »coach« practice is focused on enabling people and teams to operate effectively within these boundary conditions. Its focus is on »competency- or effectiveness-focused empowerment«.
  • Innovate: This practice is about enabling an explorative or iterative approach to problem solving and task delivery, respectively. Also, it is about promoting a constructive approach to handling tensions (»development drivers«). Since all this aims at expanding options and possibilities to better adapt services, products, or internal processes, its focus is on »exploration/innovation empowerment«.


We run across the term »agile leadership« on a day-to-day basis in our projects. Inquiring about people’s notion of agile leadership, we regularly realize that there is no shared understanding of what agile leadership is about. At the same time, we find that people often tend to understand agile leadership in ways that favor single elements (»giving autonomy« or »act as servant leader«) and mistake them for the whole of agile leadership – an approach that will sooner or later hamper team and organizational effectiveness.

In essence, an agile leader’s job is to enable people and teams to meet performance expectations or stakeholder/customer demands in business environments charged with »VUCA« and, to this end, balance means and actions that boost adaptiveness (the »empower« component) with means and actions that foster alignment (the »align« component).