Over the last number of years, the word “agile” has been tossed around in numerous ways. The most common use has roots in the programming world, where “agile” is regarded as one step forward from “waterfall” as a means of making incremental improvements, to assure that the final product grows and is adjusted through the development process to be aligned with customer demand. In recent years, agile has emerged as “agile leadership."

Some people have a rigorous notion of agile. Others prefer to use agile as a synonym for the ability to be flexible and responsive to a particular situation. Fortunately or unfortunately, the term itself is used in a non-concrete way.

What does agile leadership mean? At its core, my approach to agile leadership is predicated on the assumption that leadership is as much about how one adjusts one’s leadership style to a situation as it is on the embedded personality characteristics of the leader. Agile leadership, in this sense, implies contingency that how one leads is dependent on how one analyzes and views a particular situation.

For example, if the situation is one of stability, minimum uncertainty, and routinized expectations, then, as a leader, you lead in one way. If the opposite is true--unstable environment, high uncertainty, and ambiguous expectations--then, as a leader, you lead in another way.

Leading a manufacturing division is one thing; leading R&D is another. Leading when customer expectations are clear demands one kind of leadership; leading when customer expectations are not clear demands another.

Agile leadership demands a mindful consideration of the context and an ability to adjust your leadership style appropriately. Agile leaders are able to vary their leadership style along a continuum. The question, of course, is what is this continuum?

The classic distinction is facilitative and directive leadership. The challenge for an agile leader is to balance their directive and facilitative style. Directive leadership sustains control by allocating resources, making expectations clear, defining goals, and establishing the parameters of success and failure. Facilitative leadership is based on giving individuals maximum flexibility and autonomy--giving them flexible goals, and letting them define and deal with parameters and constraints on their own.

In balancing these two leadership styles, an agile leader needs to be clear about which style is appropriate. During lean and difficult times, you may want to explicitly define goals, with the assumption that by delineating goals and specifying expectations will allow you to better control resources. In times of growth and abundance, you may want to define goals more broadly and give autonomy to be open to opportunities.

The challenge for an agile leader is to understand which style is appropriate at which type in time. The challenge is to balance leadership styles. 

In these times, agile leadership is a special challenge for entrepreneurs because they are caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one had, they want to lead in such a fashion to give their organizations and teams the space to be innovative to assure the cutting edge. On the other hard, entrepreneurs have a short leash when it comes to resources and time. They have to be continuously accountable to assure a concrete ROI. The need to stimulate creativity and innovation may demand that the entrepreneur place a greater emphasis on their facilitative style while the shadow of ROI may demand that they emphasize their directive style. Agility is the capacity to juggle both styles as necessary. Entrepreneurial leaders need to get beyond blinders and personality and be aware of when one style suits the situation better than the other.

Even before “agile leadership” was in vogue, leaders of organizations of all sizes were well aware of it. The name may be a fad, but agile leadership has always been a core behavioral trait of successful entrepreneurs.