Agile · Leadership

How to Influence as an Agile Leader

Prada, Stilettoes, Coiffed Hair: How to Influence as an Agile Leader

History belongs to the well dressed, or so it seems in the movieThe Devil Wears Prada. Now I’m sure Gandhi and, perhaps, other pacifists would disagree, but in this movie, Andrea Sachs or “Andy”, a wholesome journalist—you know, the gritty, real world, tree-hugging sort—lands a job in New York City’s hedonist mecca: Runway magazine! And, well, she shirks her values for a strapless Valentino!

Ah, the American dream: wholesome to wholesale.

So what causes her downfall into Bunyan’s vanity fair?

Miranda Priestly.

Who is she? Thought to be a rendition of Anna Wintour—the real life Editor of Vogue—Priestly is Andy’s influential boss and sartorial mentor. In other words, she’s a nightmare: posh, pseudo-Machiavellian and often just plain mean!

Hardly the exemplar of leadership, let alone agile, right?

And yet, she succeeds to transform wholesome, Andy. How?

She leads by example.

So how does Miranda Priestly figure in the world of agile methodology? After all, a meticulous neurotic isn’t exactly the face of a great software house. And further, how is Andy relevant, or even the dubious banality of fashion?

As it turns out, leadership, or lack of it, features in bile-green glory when diagnosing the causes for agile adoption failure in work spaces. A survey carried out by VersionOne, a chief developer of agile software, found that “organizational culture” contributes to 52% of the reasons behind agile failure. That “culture” stems to general resistance to change at a whopping 39% and management support, clocking in at 34%. Priestly could have a field day here.

I’d say skip Miranda’s airs and get down to how you could identify your strengths and weaknesses as an agile leader. A reinvention if you will—and Andy did that—going from nerdy Northwestern graduate to fashionista. Side-note: Hollywood needs to stop obsessing over giving Anne Hathaway a perpetual makeover—Princess Diaries, anyone?

So let’s get down to the weave, the small stitches if you will, that it takes to wear agile fabric for a leader:

  1. First, trust. You let them own their mess. Even for someone like Miranda Priestly, she trusts her team—to make the right choices. Indeed, she scoffs at the trite idiocy of some others with not so subtle sarcasm: “Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking.”It doesn’t change the fact you guide, you advise, you urge, and don’t stifle, don’t overbear, don’t curb creativity. I mean, the term “agile”—there’s your cue right there. How are you to foster “collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams,” the very core of agile, if they’re, holding dear the opinions of their line manager over output? It’s really about letting go, as you’re holding them committed and accountable. Things are going to unravel at times, the wind might change direction——but that’s okay. Trust is a practiced art—next time you say “Okay, less buddy, more draconian hegemony.” Just kidding, don’t do that! But yeah, more conversation with the team, with them and one-on-one as well.
  2. Be naked. Employees love that. Yup. Transparency is appreciated all over. In other words, talk straight, don’t mince words. Miranda is brutal in this department. Perhaps too honest. She reveals to Andy a side of her she didn’t know she had—self-preservation. In a scene when Andy says she’d never be able to betray a friend the way Miranda Priestly did, she replies, “You already did,” and tells her of how she chose to keep her job over the benefit of her colleague.
  3. Don’t be into tools. Super systematic methodologies are just doomed to fail. Ever notice how super-bands don’t perform as well than when they’re with their own existing band members? One would think, given the right tools, Jimi Hendrix on guitar, Bono on vocals and Elton John on keys, would churn out fantastic singles—but it just doesn’t work that way! There’s a peculiar magic to teams, wrought from a careful balance, or imbalance, of personalities, of a unique accident of fate and chance, leading to great ideas being realized. A touch of freedom goes a long way, rather than “reporting” and “tools.”
    “It’s better to have a great team of people rather to have a team of great people.”Someone important and rich once said that so it must be true.Agile is all about community and mindset – you have to be it. Wearing Prada isn’t going to make you fashionable—thinking it, speaking it, walking it, will. So gone are the days of stodgy processes and archaic methodologies.
  4. It’s being it, not doing It’s leadership. It’s team-building. It’s mindset. It’s behavior. Not ceremony. Not technique. Not tools.
  5. But how do you achieve being agile sans being a despotic martinet? You observe your team at standups, you plan, you review, you coach their behavior. You let them move towards team-based recognition and performance evaluation. What’s that? Reward the team, not one slick outlaw.
  6. Bat for the team, dammit. Sounds hackneyed, but do it—shift gears, shift focus, from rugged individualistic sweats, to the team’s stabs. As a leader, dodge it through collective team rewards. This doesn’t mean I, an employee, don’t staple a page or use an eraser, without it contributing to company profits somehow—mindboggling. To have an aligned goal, aligned focus, is. You want to boost organization productivity.
  7. Does this mean you alter HR evaluation processes? No. That’d be trigger happy. Be more subtle—consider it. Analyze. Observe. Discuss continuously. Discuss with individuals. Outline their goals. Their motives. Align them with those of your organization’s goals. Advise and coach in case of conflict. Shouldn’t be hard if they trust you. Transparent. That’s important.
  8. Other cool stuff you could do: address the individual, despite focusing on the team. Every cog wants attention. Cogs have feelings, too. So don’t say, “You developers are so incompetent.” Instead, say, “You’re incompetent, Mike.” “And you, Jeff, you’re a bigger one.” *Door slam. That helps. Jokes aside, (and don’t do that), the team is effected if they’re in it together. So stop referring to “developers” and “testers.”
  9. Hold them accountable. To results. To commitments. Share team success. Share team learning. Defend them, always!
  10. Be fun. Foster fun. Foster creativity. Don’t wear a clown suit to work on Fridays. Do choose employees in your teams that can identify opportunities to have fun. You know how it works—these build team chemistry, increases collaboration and comfort. Take breaks, share practical jokes. Be positive. Emulate a “can do” attitude.
  11. Take a page out of Google’s recipe for lemon meringue. It gives its employees twenty percent time to innovate. Giants like Amazon, like Atlas Sian, do the same. Give them time to think. To discuss. What interests them? And is slacking really that bad? Tom Demarco, a famous rich guy, also a management consultant, says:

“Slack is the degree of freedom in a company that allows it to change. A company designed with slack allows its people room to breathe, increase effectiveness, and reinvent themselves.”

So that’s about it, but, would you believe there are some common qualities to agile leaders? Even Miranda Priestly. These are:

Strong communication skills and active listening;

  • A passion for learning;
  • A focus on developing people;
  • Having fun and being energized;
  • A strong self-belief, coupled with humanity and humility (the last is a toss-up);
  • Committed to making significant difference;
  • Clarity of vision and ability to share with others;
  • Clear standard of ethics and integrity, openness and honesty;
  • Ability to drive, inspire and embrace change and continuous improvement;
  • Positive attitude at all times and an innate ability to be diplomatic in any circumstances.


In case you’re thinking you’d have to be a miracle worker to do all these, you may be right. You don’t have to channel the Gospels. Just remember, “The key to successful leadership today isinfluence, not authority.”—Another famous rich guy, aka Kenneth Blanchard.

May the Prada be with you.

Written by

Muhammad Saqib


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