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

Lean-Agile Leadership


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.

It is one of the seven core competencies of the Lean Enterprise, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, which enables the enterprise to assess their proficiency. These core competency assessments, along with recommended improvement opportunities, are available from the Measure and Grow article.

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.

Becoming a Lean 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 queues and excess Work in Process (WIP)
  • Continually focus on eliminating waste 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. 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 own personal development journey.
  2. Mindset 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.
  3. Leading Change – Leaders lead (rather than simply support) the transformation by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to realize the desired outcomes.

The sections that follow explore each of 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 Einstein

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 into a Lean enterprise 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 [1] 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 [2]). 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 own personal development journey.

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 and better business results, it’s important to understand that the best outcomes will be achieved if 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 quite long, the leader behaviors below form a solid foundation for this dimension of leadership.

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

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

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

Decentralized decision-making moves the authority for decisions to where the information is; prepares teams to make decentralized decisions by investing in their technical competence and by providing organizational clarity with decision guardrails. [3].

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 patterns of working and leading that were successful in the past. 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, author of The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence

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, as part of their everyday work activities, teach them to others. 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 exactly 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 each day. Through a lifetime of structured learning (classes, reading) and unstructured lessons (life events, work experience), we form our mindsets. 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 that are 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 mindsets were 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 need to evolve in order to guide the organizational change required to become a Lean enterprise. [4]

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 then becomes, “Change them to what?” To lead 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 application of 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

The four core values that define SAFe’s essential ideals and beliefs are alignment, transparency, built-in quality, and program execution. Leader behaviors play a critical role in communicating, exhibiting, and emphasizing these values and how they guide the organization in its journey to embracing agility.

Here are some suggestions for reinforcing these values:

Alignment – Communicate the mission by establishing and expressing the portfolio strategy and solution vision. Help organize the value stream and coordinate dependencies. Provide relevant briefings and participate in Program Increment (PI) Planning. Help with backlog visibility, review, and preparation; regularly check for understanding.

Built-in quality – By refusing to accept or ship low-quality work, Lean-Agile leaders demonstrate their commitment to quality. They support investments in capacity planning for maintenance and to reduce technical debt, ensuring that the concerns of the entire organization—including design thinking, UX, architecture, operations, security, and compliance—are part of the regular flow of work.

Transparency – Visualize all relevant work. Take ownership and responsibility for errors and mistakes. 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.

Program execution – Participate as Business Owners in PI execution and establish business value. Help adjust the scope to ensure demand matches capacity. Celebrate high-quality Program Increments while aggressively removing impediments and demotivators.

Lean-Agile Mindset

SAFe is firmly grounded in four bodies of knowledge: Lean, Agile, systems thinking, and DevOps. In fact, 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. The SAFe House of Lean and the values of the Agile Manifesto

Lean – 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 [5], Poppendieck [6], and others, the SAFe House of Lean illustrates the goal of delivering value through the pillars of respect for people and culture, flow, innovation, and relentless improvement. Leadership provides the foundation on which everything else stands.

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 of the articles in the Framework that explain how to implement Lean-Agile practices at scale. There are also many great courses, books, websites, and videos that 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 for applying Lean and Agile at scale. 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

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 the sum of them individually. Lean-Agile leaders embrace these principles and routinely demonstrate and apply them as they carry out their organizational responsibilities. Review the SAFe Principles article for a more in-depth discussion of each principle.

Leading Change

Being a Lean-thinking manager-teacher provides leaders with the thought processes and practical tools they’ll need to start building the Lean enterprise and achieving 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 for many organizations, the new way of working represents a quantum shift in culture and practice from the traditional paradigms of the past. In other words, the transformation to Lean-Agile and DevOps with 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. In fact, 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 have a greater influence on employees’ commitment to supporting the change than simply following a prescriptive change model [7, 8].

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

Change vision occurs when leaders communicate why change is needed and do so in ways that inspire, motivate, and engage people.

Change leadership is the ability to positively influence and motivate others to engage in the organizational change through the leader’s own personal advocacy and drive.

A powerful coalition for change is formed when individuals from multiple levels and across silos are empowered and have the influence necessary to effectively lead the change.

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 own 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, described the eight steps in implementing successful change as [9]:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Develop the vision and strategy for change
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

Clearly, these steps require the active participation of the leaders driving the change. But even this is not enough. As Heath and Heath note in their book on change [10], leaders need to script the critical movesthat are essential to accomplish the change.

The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

Based on 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

The SAFe implementation roadmap is described in a series of 12 articles that align with Kotter’s blueprint. For example, the sense of urgency is often established in the many conversations that lead up 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, which is designed to incorporate the lessons of successful organizational change into the model for a SAFe transformation. This roadmap helps leaders ‘know the way’ as they drive for successful change.

Role of the SAFe Program Consultant

Even with Lean-Agile leaders and sound organizational change strategies in place, 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 Program 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 indeed 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 responsible for the adoption and success of Lean-Agile development and mastery of the competencies that lead to business agility.

Learn More

[1] Sinek, Simon. Leaders Eat Last. Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

[2] 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

[3] Marquet, David. Turn the Ship Around. Penguin Group, 2013.

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

[5] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements. Addison-Wesley, 2011.

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

[7] Mayner, Stephen. Transformational leadership and organizational change during agile and devops initiatives. ProQuest, 2017.

[8] 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.

[9] Kotter, John P. Leading Change, With a New Preface by the Author. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

[10] Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The Crown Publishing Group, 2010.


Last update: 27 September 2021