Leading by Example: The Key to Lean-Agile Leadership

Lean-Agile Leadership

“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]


The Lean-Agile Leadership competency is all about how Lean-Agile Leaders drive and sustain organizational change and operational excellence. They empower individuals and teams to reach their highest potential through leading by example, adopting SAFe’s Lean-Agile mindset, values, principles, and practices, and guiding the change to a new way of working.

Lean-Agile Leadership is one of the seven core competencies of Business Agility, each essential for achieving it. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment that enables enterprises to evaluate their proficiency. The Measure and Grow article offers these core competency assessments and recommends improvement opportunities.

Why Lean-Agile Leaders?

Managers, executives, and other leaders in an organization bear the responsibility for the adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development and the competencies that drive 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 fosters high-performing Agile teams, allowing them to flourish and create value. Therefore, leaders must embrace and model leaner ways of thinking and operating, ensuring that team members learn from their example, guidance, and support.

Achieving agility throughout the enterprise is not a simple task. It requires a new approach to leadership. Leaders need to embody behaviors that inspire and motivate the organization to pursue a better way of working. By coaching, empowering, and engaging individuals and teams with Lean and Agile principles and practices, they set the example and create a culture of continuous improvement. Lean-Agile leaders:

  • Organize and reorganize around value
  • Identify and reduce 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 space for teams to innovate

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

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

These dimensions are:

  1. Mindset, Values, and Principles: By integrating the Lean-Agile way of working into their beliefs, decisions, responses, and actions, leaders serve as models for the expected norm throughout the organization.
  2. Leading by Example: Leaders gain earned authority by exemplifying the desired behaviors, inspiring others to follow their example and incorporate it into their development journey.
  3. Leading Change: Leaders lead the transformation by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to achieve the desired outcomes.

The following sections delve into 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 that shape its culture, whether positive or negative. To drive the cultural change required for the new way of working, leaders must internalize and model the behaviors and mindsets of business agility, allowing others to learn and grow from their example.

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Author Simon Sinek emphasizes the importance of leading by example in his book “Leaders Eat Last” [3]. He states that leaders set the tone and direction for their organizations. Hypocritical and self-interested leaders breed a culture of hypocrisy and self-interest among employees. Conversely, truthful leaders foster a culture of honesty and truthfulness. In short, people follow the leader.

By modeling the right behaviors, leaders can transform organizational cultures from negative, power-oriented patterns to positive, performance-oriented ones that enable the Lean-Agile mindset to thrive. Figure 2 compares the attributes of Westrum’s organizational culture model [4]. These same behaviors also build earned authority—a power gained through trust, respect, expertise, or action—that garners greater engagement and commitment from employees than positional authority. Such leaders inspire others to follow their direction and incorporate their example into their personal development journeys.

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

As we learn more about the challenges presented by the digital age and the critical competencies leaders need to guide their organizations toward greater business agility, it is crucial to understand that the best outcomes are achieved when leaders model behaviors that foster a generative culture.

So, what behaviors should leaders embrace to set the right example and build a generative culture? While the list of attributes could be extensive, the leader behaviors below form a solid foundation for this dimension of leadership:

  • Insatiable learning: Leaders actively pursue knowledge and growth and encourage and support others in doing the same.
  • Authenticity: Leaders model desired professional and ethical behaviors, acting with honesty, integrity, and transparency, being true to themselves and their beliefs.
  • Emotional competence: Leaders identify and manage their emotions and those of others through self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.
  • Courage: Leaders embrace vulnerability, take appropriate risks, and engage in necessary but difficult conversations to challenge the status quo and guide their organizations through the fast-changing dynamics of the digital age.
  • Growing others: Leaders provide personal, professional, and technical guidance and resources to help employees assume increasing levels of responsibility and decision-making.
  • Decentralized decision-making: Leaders move decision-making authority to where the information is, ensuring teams have the technical competence and organizational clarity necessary to make decentralized decisions [5].

These behaviors are crucial in leading in the digital age, where instant access to information, entertainment, social and business connections, products, and services predominates through mobile and smart devices. This new context requires mindsets and skills that may differ significantly from successful patterns of the past. Leaders who fail to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of the digital economy put their organizations at a significant disadvantage.

Mindset and Principles

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

— Jacob Stoller, The Lean CEO [6]

Jacob Stoller’s quote serves as a reminder that traditional management practices are inadequate for the changes required to achieve business agility. The Lean enterprise relies on Lean-thinking manager-teachers, as Toyota terms them. These leaders understand Lean thinking and principles and pass them on to others in their everyday work. It becomes an integral part of who they are and what they do, informing every aspect of how they support teams in adopting Lean and Agile as the expected norm throughout the organization.

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What if leaders do not possess this mindset yet? What is a mindset, and how can it be changed?

Mindset Awareness and Openness to Change

A mindset is the mental lens through which we perceive the world around us. It’s how the brain simplifies, categorizes, and interprets the vast amount of information it receives daily. Our mindsets form through a lifetime of structured learning (such as classes and reading) and unstructured lessons (such as life events and work experiences). They reside in the subconscious mind and manifest as deeply ingrained beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and influences. Often, individuals are unaware of how their mindsets shape their actions and interactions. For example, many leaders develop beliefs based on business school training and on-the-job experience rooted in traditional management practices.

So, how can mindsets be changed? It starts with awareness of how one’s current mindset was formed. It’s essential to cultivate the belief that mindsets can be developed and improved through effort. Leaders must remain open to the possibility that existing mindsets grounded in traditional management practices must evolve to guide the organizational change necessary to become a Lean enterprise [7].

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 increased awareness of their current mindsets and openness to the necessary work to change them, leaders must ask, “Change them to what?” Guiding the organization through the transformation needed to achieve business agility demands a mindset that embodies the core values and principles of Lean, Agile, and SAFe. This mindset is developed by gaining in-depth knowledge and applying these values and principles. Leaders should consistently reference Lean-Agile principles and practices in their day-to-day responsibilities, coach and mentor others in these behaviors, and 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 core values are alignment, transparency, respect for people, and relentless improvement. Leader behaviors play a crucial role in communicating, embodying, and emphasizing these values and how they guide the organization’s journey toward embracing agility.

Here are some suggestions for how leaders can reinforce these values:

  • Alignment: Communicate the vision, mission, and strategy, and connect them to portfolio work through strategic themes. Help organize the value stream, connecting strategy to execution via portfolio vision, lean budgets, and epics. Offer relevant briefings and actively participate in PI Planning. Aid in backlog visibility, review, and preparation, and regularly check for understanding.
  • Transparency: Visualize all relevant work. Take ownership and responsibility for errors and mistakes, using them as learning opportunities. Admit missteps while supporting others who acknowledge and learn from their own mistakes. Instead of punishing the messenger, celebrate learning. Establish an environment where facts are always friendly and transparent, ensuring everyone has ready access to necessary information throughout the organization.
  • Respect for people: Treat people with genuine trust and respect. Value diverse opinions and viewpoints. Show 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: Prioritize, give visibility to, and allocate resources for improvement efforts. Foster a problem-solving culture of continuous improvement. Encourage consistency in conducting retrospectives and following through with identified improvements during the Inspect & Adapt (I&A) event. Protect time and space for innovation, especially during the Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration.
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Lean-Agile Mindset

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

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 originated from 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, Poppendieck, and others, Lean Thinking aims to deliver value by precisely identifying product value, mapping the Value Stream for each product, ensuring uninterrupted value flow, enabling customers to pull value from producers, and pursuing perfection. Leaders create an environment for Lean Thinking by internalizing these principles and embodying them in their words, actions, and decision-making processes.
  • Agile: Agile emerged from collaboration among 17 thought leaders in software development who sought alternatives to documentation-heavy, heavyweight software development processes. Agile values face-to-face interaction, frequent iterative and incremental value delivery, and cross-functional, self-organizing teams. While Agile originated in software development and has since been adapted for various contexts, it remains known for delivering working software and promoting close collaboration between developers, customers, and teams. Lean-Agile leaders should understand and apply both Lean Thinking and Agile values to fulfill their organizational responsibilities.

The Lean-Agile Mindset article explores how Lean and Agile are at the core of SAFe and provides further resources for leaders to deepen their understanding.

SAFe Principles

SAFe is built on ten unchangeable principles that provide inspiration and guidance for roles and practices. These principles shape leader behaviors and decision-making.

The principles are:

  1. Take an economic view
  2. Apply systems thinking
  3. Assume variability; preserve options
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles
  5. Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
  6. Visualize and limit work in progress, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths
  7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
  9. Decentralize decision-making
  10. Organize around value

Each principle is necessary to realize the personal, business, and economic benefits of SAFe. These principles form an interconnected system where each informs the others, and together they create results that surpass the sum of their individual contributions. Lean-Agile leaders embrace these principles, routinely demonstrating and applying them in their organizational responsibilities. For a more detailed discussion of each principle, refer to the SAFe Principles articles.

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Leading Change

Being a Lean-Agile leader equips individuals with the thought processes and practical tools needed to guide their enterprise toward achieving business agility. The benefits are clear: delivering value in the shortest sustainable lead time, creating a culture of flow, and generating customer delight all while fostering happy and engaged employees. However, this new way of working represents a significant shift in culture and practice from traditional paradigms. In other words, adopting SAFe requires significant organizational change.

Here again, the role of Lean-Agile leaders cannot be overemphasized. Successful organizational change requires leaders who lead the transformation rather than merely “support” it. These leaders create the necessary environment, prepare individuals, and provide the required resources to achieve 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 studies have found that these leader behaviors influence employees’ commitment to change more than 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: Effectively communicate the reasons for change in ways that inspire, motivate, and engage people with a sense of urgency.
  • Powerful coalition for change: Empower a “volunteer army” of individuals from multiple levels and diverse perspectives to contribute to and overcome barriers to change implementation.
  • Change leadership: Positively influence and motivate others to engage in organizational change through personal advocacy and drive. Proactively produce and celebrate short-term wins, reinforce the change until desired outcomes are achieved, and integrate the change into the organization’s new normal.
  • Psychological safety: Create an environment that supports risk-taking and change without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.
  • Training the new way of working: Ensure that everyone receives training in Lean and Agile values, principles, and practices. Leaders themselves must commit to training to effectively lead by example.

While sound organizational change management practices are crucial and highly recommended in a SAFe transformation, Dr. John Kotter, a renowned voice in OCM, has described eight accelerators for successful change implementation [12, 13]:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Form a guiding coalition
  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

Furthermore, Dr. Kotter outlines four change leadership principles that help unlock the full potential of these accelerators:

  • Management + Leadership: Leadership must take the forefront in capitalizing on opportunities. It involves vision, action, innovation, and celebration, along with essential managerial processes.
  • ‘Have to’ + ‘Want to’: People who feel included in meaningful opportunities contribute to change beyond their normal responsibilities. Existing team members can provide energy if invited.
  • Head + Heart: Inspiring others requires more than just logic. It’s about giving greater meaning and purpose to their efforts.
  • Select Few + Diverse Many: Change should not be carried out solely as directives; more people need to be involved in making it happen. By inviting broader participation, leaders may discover hidden leaders at all levels of the organization.

While these values and practices require leaders’ active participation, it is not enough. Leaders, as described by Heath and Heath in their book on change [14], need to “script the critical moves” required to accomplish the change.

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The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

The SAFe Implementation Roadmap article series provides guidance to leaders on this specific journey, aligning with Kotter’s blueprint for change. For example, establishing a sense of urgency often arises from conversations that lead an organization to the tipping point of committing to SAFe. The next step involves training a core group of Lean-Agile change agents and leaders who form a powerful guiding coalition. This pattern continues throughout the roadmap, incorporating lessons from successful organizational change into the SAFe transformation model. The roadmap offers leaders direction on their path as they strive for successful change. It also highlights Scaled Agile’s Leading in the Digital Age series, designed to better prepare leaders for leading the implementation.

Role of the SAFe Practice Consultants

While every leader plays a role in effecting change, experience from numerous SAFe implementations suggests that a significant cadre of change agents and experienced coaches is also crucial. Although leaders contribute to change, SAFe Practice Consultants (SPCs) are specially trained and equipped for the task. SPCs possess the necessary training, tools, courseware, and intrinsic motivation to successfully implement and sustain a SAFe transformation.


Implementing SAFe isn’t just another change; it represents an ongoing shift toward improving business agility, founded on Agile and Lean principles. This shift requires managers, executives, and leaders who understand how to lead, sustain, and accelerate the transformation to a new way of working.

Leaders alone possess 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 create value. Therefore, leaders must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so that the rest of the organization can learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

Effective leadership forms the foundation for adopting and succeeding with Lean-Agile as the new way of working and for mastering 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, Volume 93, 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

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