Creating a Culture of Agile Leaders: A Developmental Approach
The globalized economy and the spread of connective technologies force the pace of change and the degree of complexity to shift for organizations to an entirely new level.
To enjoy sustained success in this turbulent environment, organizations in all sectors need to develop a level of agility that matches this unprecedented level of change and complexity. This means learning to navigate constant change and to effectively manage increasing interdependencies with customers, strategic allies and other stakeholders—including the planet itself.
As James McNerney, the respected CEO of Boeing says, “Institutionally, the ability to be agile enough is the gut issue in leading an organization today” (Geoffrey, 2006). Yet most of today’s organizations operate at a level of agility better suited for a less-demanding era (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2009). Who will create and lead the agile organizations we need? The answer must be agile leaders. There is a huge need for agile leaders and leadership cultures that model and support agility across the enterprise. To help make this happen human resource executives need to gain a clear understanding of what leadership agility is, how it can be assessed and how increased levels of agility can be developed—in executives, in high-potential managers and throughout the organization.
What is Leadership Agility?
Leadership agility is the ability to lead effectively when rapid change and uncertainty are the norm and when success requires consideration of multiple views and priorities. It requires a process of using enhanced awareness and intentionality to increase effectiveness under real-time conditions: stepping back from whatever one is focused on, gaining a broader perspective and bringing new insight into what needs to be done next.
Through our in-depth research on leadership agility, Stephen Joseph and I found that highly agile leaders actually use four kinds of agility to complete successful initiatives (Joiner & Joseph, 2007):
- Context-setting agility enables leaders to scan their environment, anticipate important changes, decide what initiatives they need to take, scope these initiatives and determine needed outcomes. Highly agile leaders can be visionary. At the same time, when called for by specific situations, they can “downshift” into strategic or tactical direction setting.
- Stakeholder agility allows leaders to identify the key stakeholders of an initiative, understand their views and priorities, determine where greater alignment is needed and forge greater alignment. Highly agile leaders are decisive, yet they can understand and appreciate frames of reference that differ from their own. They seek input from key stakeholders not simply to gain buy-in, but because they feel that genuine dialogue will improve the quality and effectiveness of their decisions and their initiatives.
- Creative agility empowers leaders to transform complex, novel problems and opportunities into desired results. As leaders increase their agility, they become more comfortable with novelty and uncertainty. Because they clearly understand the limitations of any single perspective, they encourage the expression of multiple viewpoints and the questioning of underlying assumptions. Their willingness to experience the tension between differing views and criteria gives them enhanced abilities to discover practical creative solutions to challenging problems.
- Self-leadership agility allows leaders to accelerate their own development by determining the kinds of leaders they want to be, use their everyday initiatives to experiment toward these aspirations and then reflect on and learn from these experiences. Highly agile leaders want to increase their awareness of behaviors, feelings and assumptions that would normally escape their conscious attention.
They are motivated to more fully align their behavior with their values and aspirations. As a result, they are more proactive in seeking and using feedback and in experimenting with new mindsets and behaviors.