HEART: How to Be a Leader in an Agile Environment

By BrainStation October 5, 2018

As one Forbes contributor puts it, Agile is “the world’s most popular innovation engine.” Arguably more of an umbrella term, it refers to a variety of frameworks that prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, collaboration over negotiation, and being responsive to change over following a set plan.

The goals include getting more bang for your buck quickly, while boosting adaptability and lowering development costs — and not running your team ragged in the process.

Sure, that all sounds great. But how can modern leaders truly be successful in an Agile environment?

Feng Xie, senior product director at Highline BETA, came up with a handy acronym to keep leaders on track: HEART.  

This stands for five principles that he believes are necessary to be a leader in an agile environment: Honesty, Empathy, Authenticity, Respect, and Trust.


A key aspect of Agile methodology is its incremental nature, which allows teams to keep their “eyes on the prize” while adapting their approach throughout regular “sprint” work cycles, notes global accreditation institute APMG.

In that kind of rapid-fire work environment where constant feedback is paramount, Xie says honesty among team members is crucial — and it starts at the top.

“You have to be honest with yourself, you have to be honest with your team, you have to be honest about what you’ve delivered,” he says.

Those honest conversations can ultimately highlight flaws and lags in a workflow, and refine your team’s product before the process moves too far along.


Particularly for leaders who are developing an Agile environment in their workplace for the first time, a dose of empathy is essential.

“At the end of the day, you’re changing people,” says Xie. “You have to understand the position these people are in and the environment they’re accustomed to… you can’t just bring in something and expect them to adopt it overnight.”

Leaders also need to understand that every team will operate in a slightly different way, and it’s crucial to ask the right questions to understand how their mindset impacts their work — something that’s good to remember when it comes to thinking about customers as well, in order to build teamwork and develop products that hit the mark.

“You need empathy for your customer, empathy for your stakeholders, empathy for the people that you’re working with,” Xie says.


When you’re building an Agile workflow, being authentic as a leader is an important step given the high level of personal connection you’ll have with your team.

Team members “must work together daily throughout the project,” note the authors behind the popular Agile Manifesto. “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

In those situations, don’t be robotic or autocratic. Be warm, welcoming, and above all — be yourself.

“To build trust and transparency, you have to be honest with your team about who you are,” says Xie. “Bring your whole self to work, and to your team.”


Respect should never be a one-way street between a team and its leader; it also needs to come from the top down, with workplace leaders setting the tone.

“You’re going to have people with different levels of experience,” says Xie. Showing respect, he adds, helps build the rapport that’s crucial for a successful Agile team by creating a psychological safety net for staff.

Put simply, you don’t want to create an environment where employees feel disrespected. According to HR and tech company Morneau Shepell, “workplaces where employees feel disrespected experience high levels of turnover, conflict, grievances, and low levels of engagement, attendance and productivity.”

To put it another way — disrespectful colleagues create a culture that’s antithetical to the goals of Agile methodologies, and that’s bad for business.


In an environment driven by a shared goal, it’s important for team members to trust each other — and for leaders to trust them, too.

“Build projects around motivated individuals,” note the Agile Manifesto’s authors. “Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

In other words, don’t micromanage or overstep, and believe in your teams enough to give them space to solve problems on their own before stepping in.

“Colleagues want to feel safe and trusted when it comes to giving feedback,” adds Xie, which ultimately promotes a team’s ability to hit its goals.

“And all of that starts with trust.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Agile environment, BrainStation offers Agile Training courses both on campus and online.