Leadership Agility, the Master Capacity of Transformational Leadership
by Georgia Kartsanis
Up to today leadership served a linear business world: hierarchical, centralized, closed, top down and focusing on command and control – evolved one hundred years ago for an era of economies of scale and relative stability and predictability.
Our environment today is changing exponentially. Disruption and complexity are the new normal. We live a perfect storm of change – change2 – mainly driven by exponential technologies and globalization. As a result, the business environment is becoming increasingly open, interconnected and fluid.
The Need for Agility
While specific future developments are increasingly difficult to predict, there are two deep trends we can predict with great certainty: The pace of change will continue to increase, and the level of complexity and interdependence will continue to grow. For over a decade, organizational change experts, acutely aware of these powerful trends, have been talking about the need to develop “agile” companies – organizations that anticipate and respond rapidly to changing conditions by leveraging highly productive internal and external relationships.
Bringing “Leadership Agility” to Agile
In pursuit of true organizational agility, many companies that use Agile, and the consulting firms who work with them, are feeling an urgent need to place greater emphasis on Agile leadership. In this Circle, I present “Leadership Agility”, stressing the importance of helping managers to develop the cognitive and emotional capacities (not just mindset) needed to be agile.
Yet, for the vast majority of companies, full-fledged strategic and operational agility is still more an aspiration than a reality. One of the major reasons for this continuing “agility gap” is the need to develop more agile leaders. To develop teams and organizations with the level of agility demanded by today’s turbulent business environment, companies need leaders who embody a corresponding level of agility.
It’s no wonder, then, that senior executives have ranked agility among the most critical leadership competencies needed in their companies today. But what is leadership agility? In essence, it’s the ability to lead effectively under conditions of rapid change and mounting complexity. Because these trends affect all managerial levels, this is a competency that’s increasingly needed not just in the executive suite but throughout the organization.
The Special Qualities of Agile Leaders
Agile leaders have an intentional, proactive approach to tranformation. They anticipate emerging threats and opportunities by continually scanning their organization’s environment for new developments. They view the challenges they face with fresh eyes and a willingness to rethink past assumptions.
Agile leaders are creative thinkers with a deep sense of purpose. They actively engage diverse stakeholders, influencing and learning from them at the same time. Their ability to examine situations from multiple perspectives and to “connect the dots” between seemingly disparate issues allows them to generate novel strategic insights. As a result, their visions for the future are innovative, purposeful, and compelling.
Agile leaders have a broad repertoire of behaviors that allows them to rapidly adjust their leadership style to the demands of any given situation. They give appropriately balanced attention to short-term and long-term priorities, to top-down direction-setting and meaningful participation, and to fostering individual initiative and strong teamwork.
Agile leaders are resilient in responding to the difficulty and discomfort that change and uncertainty can bring. They seek feedback from multiple sources and use both mistakes and successes as fodder for continual learning and development. Finally, they are committed to creating agile teams and organizations and to helping those around them become more effective leaders.
Stages in Developing Agile Capacities
Adopting an Agile mindset is an essential foundation for Agile leadership and being agile crucially requires the development of certain cognitive and emotional capacities. These capacities evolve through well-documented stages of personal development. Here’s a snapshot of the three most relevant stages:
- Expert. At this stage, managers strongly identify with their technical or functional expertise and implicitly assume that leadership is exercised through authority and expertise. Experts have a passion for problem solving but tend to focus on one problem or person at a time without paying much attention to stakeholders or the larger context.
- Achiever. Managers at this stage see authority and expertise as important resources but feel that leadership is primarily about challenging and inspiring others to achieve outcomes valued by the larger organization. These managers have developed an initial level of systems thinking that leads them to take a strategic approach to organizational change and to focus on the improvement of organizational and business systems. This perspective also leads Achievers to value teamwork and to see problems in a larger context.
- Catalyst . At this stage, managers add an awareness and appreciation of the power of the “human system” (e.g., culture) that underlies the organizational and business systems where Achievers focus their attention. Catalysts set out to develop agile organizations and, in service of this aim, place special emphasis on creating a culture of participation, empowerment, collaboration, and constructive candor.These stages unfold sequentially. New cognitive and emotional capacities emerge at each stage and take some time to develop, though this growth process can be accelerated with the right kind of support. As managers grow into new stages, they retain their ability to utilize previously developed capacities.
Undoubtedly agile methods constitute a true revolution in management. By themselves, though, they do not provide the too-often missing ingredient of Agile leadership.
The Leadership Agility body of work provides a roadmap of agility levels and methodologies that help managers develop agile capacities and corresponding leadership behaviors. When combined with existing Agile principles, values, and methods, Leadership Agility provides a unique contribution to an Agile transformation program.