It’s not enough that management commit themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do. Such a responsibility cannot be delegated.

—W. Edwards Deming

Paraphrased from Out of the Crisis [1]

Lean-Agile Leadership


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The Lean-Agile Leadership competency describes how Lean-Agile Leaders drive and sustain organizational change and operational excellence by empowering individuals and teams to reach their highest potential. They do this through leading by example, learning and modeling SAFe’s Lean-Agile mindset, values, principles, and practices, and leading the change to a new way of working.

Lean-Agile Leadership is one of the seven core competencies of Business Agility, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, enabling the enterprise to assess its proficiency. The Measure and Grow article provides these core competency assessments and recommended improvement opportunities.

Why Lean-Agile Leaders?

An organization’s managers, executives, and other leaders are responsible for the adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development and the competencies that lead to business agility. Only they have the authority to change and continuously improve the systems that govern how work is performed. Moreover, only these leaders can create an environment that encourages high-performing Agile teams to flourish and produce value. Leaders, therefore, must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so that team members will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

Achieving agility throughout the enterprise is neither simple nor easy. As described below, business agility requires a new approach to leadership. It starts with leaders exemplifying behaviors that will inspire and motivate the organization to pursue a better way of working. They set the example by coaching, empowering, and engaging individuals and teams to reach their highest potential through Lean and Agile principles and practices.

In short, knowledge alone won’t be enough. Lean-Agile leaders must do more than simply ‘support’ the transformation: they must actively lead the change, participating in and guiding the activities necessary to understand and continuously optimize the flow of value through the enterprise. Lean-Agile leaders:

  • Organize and reorganize around value
  • Identify and reduce long queues and excess Work in Process (WIP)
  • Continually focus on eliminating bottlenecks and delays
  • Eliminate demotivating policies and procedures
  • Inspire and motivate others
  • Create a culture of relentless improvement
  • Provide the space for teams to innovate

By helping leaders develop along three distinct dimensions, as illustrated in Figure 1, organizations can establish Lean-Agile leadership as a core competency:

Figure 1. The dimensions of lean-agile leadership
Figure 1. The dimensions of lean-agile leadership

These dimensions are:

  1. Mindset, Values, and Principles – By embedding the Lean-Agile way of working in their beliefs, decisions, responses, and actions, leaders model the expected norm throughout the organization.
  2. Leading by Example – Leaders gain earned authority by modeling the desired behaviors for others to follow, inspiring them to incorporate the leader’s example into their development journey.
  3. Leading Change – Leaders lead (rather than support) the transformation by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to realize the desired outcomes.

The following sections explore these dimensions of Lean-Agile leadership in greater detail.

Leading by Example

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.

—Albert Schweitzer, Paraphrased from an interview in United Nations World [2]

Through their words and actions, leaders provide the organization with patterns of expected behaviors. The aggregation of those patterns determines the organization’s culture, whether good or bad. The most important and effective technique for driving the cultural change needed to transform to the new way of working is for leaders to internalize and model the behaviors and mindsets of business agility so that others can learn and grow by their example.

Author Simon Sinek underscores the importance of leading by example in his book Leaders Eat Last [3] with the following:

The leaders of companies set the tone and direction for the people. Hypocrites, liars, and self-interested leaders create cultures filled with hypocrites, liars, and self-interested employees. The leaders of companies who tell the truth, in contrast, will create a culture of people who tell the truth. It is not rocket science. We follow the leader.

By modeling the right behaviors, leaders can transform organizational cultures from the pathological (negative, power-oriented) and bureaucratic (negative, rule-oriented) patterns of the past to the generative (positive, performance-oriented) culture that is required for the Lean-Agile mindset to flourish. Figure 2 provides a comparison of the attributes of Westrum’s organizational culture model [4]. These same behaviors also build earned authority—power gained through trust, respect, expertise, or action—which engenders greater engagement and commitment to organizational aims than positional authority. Such leaders inspire others to follow their direction and to incorporate the leader’s example into their personal development journey.

Figure 2. Westrum's organizational cultures model (adapted)
Figure 2. Westrum’s organizational cultures model (adapted)

As we learn more about the challenges of the digital age and the critical competencies leaders need to guide the organization to greater business agility, it’s essential to understand that the best outcomes are achieved when leaders model behaviors that foster a generative culture.

What, then, are the behaviors that leaders should embrace to set the right example and build a generative culture? While the potential list of attributes could be long, the leader behaviors below form a solid foundation for this dimension of leadership.

Insatiable learning depicts how leaders engage in the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge and growth and encourage and support the same in others.

Authenticity requires leaders to model desired professional and ethical behaviors. Acting with honesty, integrity, and transparency, they are true to themselves and their beliefs.

Emotional competence describes how leaders identify and manage their emotions and those of others through self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Courage is essential for leaders to guide their organizations through the rapidly changing dynamics of the digital age. It requires leaders to embrace vulnerability, take appropriate risks, and engage in difficult but necessary conversations to challenge the status quo.

Growing others encourages leaders to provide each employee’s personal, professional, and technical guidance and resources to assume increasing levels of responsibility and decision-making.

Decentralized decision-making moves the authority for decisions to where the information is; it prepares teams to make decentralized decisions by investing in their technical competence and providing organizational clarity with decision guardrails [5].

These behaviors are critical to leading in the digital age, where business growth is fueled by an increased shift to instant access to information, entertainment, social and business connections, products, and services, predominantly via mobile and smart devices. This modern context requires mindsets and skills that can be significantly different from the past patterns of working and leading that were successful. If leaders fail to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of a digital economy, their organizations will be significantly disadvantaged.

Mindset and Principles

The basic tenets of Lean challenge many of the aspects of traditional management theory and calls for a mindset that is foreign to most executives.

—Jacob Stoller, The Lean CEO [6]

Stoller’s quote is a reminder that traditional management practices are insufficient for the changes needed to achieve business agility. Instead, the Lean enterprise depends on what Toyota calls Lean-thinking manager-teachers. These leaders understand Lean thinking and principles and teach them to others in their everyday work activities. This is integral to who they are and what they do. It informs every aspect of their approach to helping teams throughout the organization work in a Lean and Agile manner as the expected norm.

But what if leaders don’t have that mindset yet? What is a ‘mindset’, and how can a mindset be changed?

Mindset Awareness and Openness to Change

A mindset is simply the mental lens through which we view the world around us. It is how the human brain simplifies, categorizes, and interprets the vast amounts of information it receives daily. We form our mindsets through a lifetime of structured learning (classes, reading) and unstructured lessons (life events, work experience). They reside in the subconscious mind and manifest themselves as deeply held beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and influences. Consequently, individuals are often unaware of how their mindsets influence how they carry out their responsibilities and interact with others. For example, many leaders develop beliefs through business school training and on-the-job experience grounded in legacy waterfall, stage-gate, and siloed ways of working.

So how can mindsets be changed? It begins with the awareness of how one’s current mindset was formed. It’s also vital to cultivate the belief that mindsets can be developed and improved (a ‘growth’ mindset, as illustrated in Figure 3). Leaders must remain open to the possibility that existing mindsets based on traditional management practices must evolve to guide the organizational change required to become a Lean enterprise [7].

Figure 3. Adopting a new mindset requires a belief that new abilities can be developed with effort
Figure 3. Adopting a new mindset requires a belief that new abilities can be developed with effort

Developing a New Mindset

With an increased awareness of current mindsets and an openness to doing the work required to change them, the question becomes, “Change them to what?” Leading the organization through the transformation needed to achieve business agility requires a mindset that reflects the core values and principles of Lean, Agile, and SAFe. This is developed by gaining intimate knowledge and applying these values and principles. It is reflected in how leaders routinely reference Lean-Agile principles and practices as part of carrying out their responsibilities, how they coach and mentor these behaviors in others, and how they promote Lean-Agile practices as the default way of working throughout the organization.

Let’s take a closer look at the three key elements that form the foundation of this new mindset: SAFe Core Values, the Lean-Agile Mindset, and SAFe Principles.

SAFe Core Values

SAFe’s essential ideals and beliefs are defined by alignment, transparency, respect for people, and relentless improvement. Leader behaviors play a critical role in communicating, exhibiting, and emphasizing these values and how they guide the organization’s journey to embracing agility.

Here are some suggestions for how leaders reinforce these values:

Alignment – Communicate the vision, mission, and strategy, and connect them to the portfolio work through well-formed strategic themes. Help organize the value stream and connect strategy to execution through the portfolio vision, lean budgets, and epics. Provide relevant briefings and participate in PI Planning. Help with backlog visibility, review, and preparation; regularly check for understanding.

Transparency – Visualize all relevant work. Take ownership and responsibility for errors and mistakes, using them as learning moments. Admit missteps while supporting others who acknowledge and learn from theirs. Never punish the messenger. Instead, celebrate learning. Create an environment where the facts are always friendly and transparent. Ensure everyone throughout the organization has ready access to needed information.

Respect for people – Treat people with authentic trust and respect. Value diverse opinions and viewpoints. Have genuine care and concern for the growth and development of others by providing coaching, mentoring, training, and enriching experiences. Extend respect to internal and external customers as well as partners and suppliers.

Relentless improvement – Provide priority, visibility, and resources to improvement efforts. Promote a problem-solving culture of ‘everyone improving all the time.’ Encourage consistency in conducting retrospectives and following through with improvements identified as part of the Problem-Solving Workshop during Inspect & Adapt (I&A). Protect time and space for innovation, especially during the Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration.

Lean-Agile Mindset

The genesis of SAFe was to develop guidance for enterprises on how to apply the principles and practices of Lean and Agile in the world’s largest organizations. A Lean-Agile Mindset requires leaders to learn, embrace, and model both Lean and Agile in their behaviors and support adoption by the enterprise. Figure 4 illustrates the key concepts of each discipline.

Figure 4. Lean Thinking principles and the values of the Agile Manifesto
Figure 4. Lean Thinking principles and the values of the Agile Manifesto

Lean Thinking – Lean is a set of principles and practices for efficient manufacturing and operations that grew out of the Toyota Production System developed in post-WWII Japan. It focuses on problem-solving and continuous improvement to increase quality and eliminate waste. Adapted to product development by Leffingwell [8], Poppendieck [9], and others, the principles of Lean Thinking illustrate the goal of delivering value by precisely specifying value by product, identifying the Value Stream for each product, making value flow without interruptions, letting the customer pull value from the producer, and pursuing perfection. Leaders create the environment for Lean Thinking by internalizing these principles and exemplifying them in their words, actions, and decision-making process.

Agile – Agile was born from a collaboration of 17 thought leaders in software development who met in 2001 to seek alternatives to the documentation-driven, heavyweight software development processes that were common at the time. It includes four values (shown in Figure 4) and twelve principles as reflected in the Agile Manifesto. Agile is known for delivering iterative and incremental value in the form of working software by promoting face-to-face interaction frequently between developers, customers, and cross-functional, self-organizing teams. Agile has since been adapted and embraced in many non-software development contexts.

The Lean-Agile Mindset article describes how Lean and Agile are at the heart of SAFe and are supported by many articles in the Framework that explain how to implement Lean-Agile practices at scale. Many great courses, books, websites, and videos form a rich set of resources that Lean-Agile leaders should explore to deepen their understanding.

SAFe Principles

SAFe is based on ten immutable, underlying principles. These tenets and economic concepts inspire and inform the roles and practices of SAFe, influencing leader behaviors and decision-making.

The principles are:

Figure 5. The SAFe Lean-Agile Principles
Figure 5. The SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

Each is necessary to experience the personal, business, and economic benefits of applying SAFe. Moreover, these principles work together as a system; each informs the others, and the whole is far greater than their sum individually. Lean-Agile leaders embrace these principles and routinely demonstrate and apply them to carry out their organizational responsibilities. Review the SAFe Principles articles for a more in-depth discussion of each principle.

Leading Change

Being a Lean-Agile leader provides the thought processes and practical tools needed to guide the enterprise to achieve business agility. The benefits of delivering value in the shortest sustainable lead time, creating flow, and producing customer delight—all with happy, engaged employees—are clear. It’s also clear that the new way of working for many organizations represents a quantum shift in culture and practice from the traditional paradigms of the past. In other words, the transformation required to adopt SAFe inevitably leads to significant organizational change.

Here again, the role of the Lean-Agile leader is critical. Successful organizational change requires leaders who will lead the transformation (rather than simply ‘support’ it) by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to realize desired outcomes. Research shows clear correlations between the leader behaviors described in the “Leading by Example” section of this article and the success of organizational change driven by Agile and DevOps initiatives. Other researchers found that these leader behaviors influence employees’ commitment to supporting the change more than simply following a prescriptive change model [10, 11].

Lean-Agile leaders drive the change process by developing and applying the following skills and techniques:

Change vision occurs when leaders effectively communicate why change is needed and do so in ways that inspire, motivate, and engage people to buy into the change with a sense of urgency.

A powerful coalition for change is formed when a ‘volunteer army’ of individuals from multiple levels, across silos, and with diverse perspectives are empowered to contribute to and help overcome barriers to implementing the change.

Change leadership is the ability to positively influence and motivate others to engage in organizational change through the leader’s personal advocacy and drive. It includes producing and celebrating short-term wins, reinforcing the change until the desired outcomes are achieved, and anchoring the change in the organization as the ‘new normal.’

Psychological safety occurs when leaders create an environment for risk-taking that supports change without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.

Training the new way of working ensures that everyone is trained in the values, principles, and practices of Lean and Agile, including a commitment by leaders to their training so they can lead by example.

Sound organizational change management (OCM) practices are still important and highly recommended in a SAFe transformation. One of the most respected voices in OCM, Dr. John Kotter, in his most recent research, has described the ‘eight accelerators’ for implementing successful change as [12, 13]:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Pull together the guiding team
  3. Develop the change vision and strategy
  4. Communicate for understanding and buy-in
  5. Empower others to act
  6. Produce short-term wins
  7. Don’t let up
  8. Institute change

Dr. Kotter goes further in describing four change leadership principles that can help unlock the full potential of the eight accelerators:

Management + Leadership. To capitalize on windows of opportunity, leadership must be paramount – and not just from one executive. It’s about vision, action, innovation, and celebration, as well as essential managerial processes.

‘Have to’ + ‘Want to’. Those who feel included in a meaningful opportunity will help create change in addition to their normal responsibilities. Existing team members can provide the energy – if you invite them.

Head + Heart. Most people aren’t inspired by logic alone, but rather by the fundamental desire to contribute to a larger cause. Extraordinary results are possible if you can give greater meaning and purpose to your effort.

Select Few + Diverse Many. More people need to be able to make change happen – not just carry out someone else’s directives. Done right, this uncovers leaders at all levels of an organization, ones you never knew you had.

These values and practices require the active participation of the leaders driving the change. But even this is not enough. Heath and Heath note in their book on change [14] that leaders need to script the critical movesessential to accomplish the change.

The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

Based on experience and these insights from the field of organizational change management, the SAFe Implementation Roadmap article series guides leaders on this particular journey, as summarized in the Implementation Roadmap article and Figure 6 below.

Figure 6. The SAFe Implementation Roadmap
Figure 6. The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

The SAFe implementation roadmap is described in a series of 12 articles that align with Kotter’s blueprint for change. For example, the sense of urgency is often established in the many conversations that lead to an organization ‘reaching the tipping point’ and deciding to ‘go SAFe.’ The next recommended action is to train a core group of Lean-Agile change agents and leaders who will form the powerful guiding coalition. The pattern continues throughout the roadmap, designed to incorporate successful organizational change lessons into the SAFe transformation model. This roadmap helps leaders’ know the way’ as they drive for successful change. The roadmap also highlights Scaled Agile’s Leading in the Digital Age series designed to better prepare leaders to lead the implementation.

Role of the SAFe Practice Consultants

Even with Lean-Agile leaders and sound organizational change strategies, observations from many SAFe implementations indicate that a significant cadre of change agents and experienced coaches is also needed. While every leader plays a part in producing the change, SAFe Practice Consultants (SPCs) are trained and equipped specially for this task. SPCs’ training, tools, courseware, and intrinsic motivation play a critical role in successfully implementing and sustaining a SAFe transformation.


Implementing SAFe is not just any change; it’s a shift to persistently and relentlessly improving business agility, all based on the fundamentals of Agile and Lean. It requires managers, executives, and other leaders who understand how to lead, sustain, and accelerate the transformation to a new way of working.

Leaders alone have the authority to change and continuously improve the systems that govern how work is performed. Only they can create an environment that encourages high-performing Agile teams to flourish and produce value. Leaders, therefore, must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so the rest of the organization will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

Effective leadership ultimately provides the foundation for the adoption and success of Lean-Agile as the new way of working, and mastery of the competencies that lead to business agility.

Learn More

[1] Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. The MIT Press, 2018.

[2] Schweitzer, Albert. United Nations World. UN World Incorporated, 1952.

[3] Sinek, Simon. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. Portfolio, 2017.

[4] Westrum, Ron. A topology of organizational cultures. 2004. Quality and Safety in Health Care, 13(Suppl II):ii22–ii27. doi: 10.1136/qshc.2003.009522

[5] Marquet, L. David. Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Portfolio, 2013.

[6] Stoller, Jacob. The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence. McGraw Hill, 2015.

[7] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishing, 2007.

[8] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010.

[9] Poppendieck, Mary, and Tom Poppendieck. Implementing Lean Software Development: Concept to Cash. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006.

[10] Mayner, Stephen. Transformational Leadership and Organizational Change During Agile and DevOps Initiatives. ProQuest, 2017.

[11] Herold, David M., Donald B. Fedor, Steven Caldwell, and Yi Liu. “The Effects of Transformational and Change Leadership on Employees’ Commitment to Change: A Multi-level Study.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008.

[12] Kotter, John P. Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.

[13] Kotter, John P. Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times. Wiley, 2021.

[14] Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Crown Business, 2010.

Last update: 27 May 2023