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The quest for leadership agility

The quest for leadership agility
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Earlier this year, I sat down with a group of fellow practitioners and consultants with the aim of defining leadership agility and creating tools and resources to use with the scores of clients asking us to develop this capacity in their people. However, with over 100 years of leadership development expertise between us, and after several hours and multiple discarded drafts later… we found that easy definitions and quick fixes prove very elusive. What we found was an increasing need to demystify what we’ve come to call leadership agility and to focus, instead, on what it is we are looking to address with leadership agility when we identify the need in our organizations.

Let’s start by defining agility itself. If we approach the concept from a sporting and physical perspective, we can understand it as the ability to move with a core strength, balance, and muscle memory that allows for quick and flexible reactions to stimulus. Therefore, in a leadership context, agility could be the capacity to react swiftly and appropriately to unexpected or disruptive events. How then do we quickly teach people this skill? The truth is that we can’t. Alas, there is no secret sauce for addressing this need we have identified as leadership agility – the dilemma my colleagues and I faced, and frankly the catalyst for this article. The ability and the skillset to be agile require a build-up, over time, of core strength and muscle memory – skills and tools we learn to leverage more quickly as a result of hard work and practice.

So how exactly do we go about building this capacity over time? In order to think about this, we need to return to the fundamentals of leadership action: noticing when action is needed, deciding what to do, having the courage to act, and then acting. We also need to pinpoint where in the process we tend to fail. In my opinion, we are great at noticing when action is needed; we are good at deciding what to do about it; what we are bad at is actually acting. Why is this? Because we often lack the necessary courage – our fears, anxieties, doubts and misgivings get in the way. A great leader isn’t an embodiment of a long list of personality traits; it is someone who has the courage to act, to do so quickly, to do so wisely, and to continue to do so again and again.

Therefore, according to this logic, interrogating our fears ­and anxieties – recognising, befriending and overcoming them – will reveal the pathway to courage. However, this alone isn’t enough. In everyday organizational life we don’t have time to stop and analyze our fears every time we notice that action is needed. Courage needs to become habitual, so that when the need for action arises, we can manage our fears, summon courage and act, all in one swift movement. Once we find access to more courage, and while we are establishing the habit, we need to build the muscle memory of all our foundational leadership skills that inform our actions – those tools that allow us to decide on the appropriate courageous actions to take and address what we are noticing.

Yes, this sounds simple and often simple is not easy. Too often I see leaders and individuals forgetting, abandoning, and disregarding the basic tenants of good leadership action because a situation knocks them off balance. The most effective and adaptable leaders and individuals put the time in to practice, hone, and build their core strengths so they become habitual. This – the instinctive capacity for fast-moving, responsive, flexible and decisive action – is leadership agility.

In this sense, leadership agility is linked to a heightened sense of presence. Becoming fully present to your inner and outer worlds enables a fuller sense of responsiveness to the moment, rather than just being trapped in stress-based reactivity. As a result of this, when change or disruption threaten to strike, you have a better chance of being mindful about what to do. Just as an athlete can flex to avoid a fall that they’ve had before, over time you will build up a reservoir of experience that you can mine, each time the pace of change increases or disruption looms. This might mean you knowing what to do, or, if you judge that the change really is new territory, you can switch into forms of leadership action that help in the face of the unknown (like honesty about the status quo, creating spaces for inquiry and dialogue, broadening your attention and listening for emergent themes, and more).

Leadership agility is laid on the foundations of self-awareness, presence, strength, balance and adaptability, and it is built up through practice and experience. Just like courage or good leadership, agility isn’t a personality trait – it is a form of action that is made habitual over time. Agility shouldn’t be seen as a noun – it’s a verb. It is something we do until it becomes a way of being. It is a capacity that is within everyone’s grasp, we just need to invest the time in creating our own pathways towards it. In these volatile times, it’s no longer good enough to hope that the 'agile' few of us will work out the answers, while the rest of us sit back; we all need to do the work to develop our own presence, responsiveness and agility and prepare ourselves for what’s coming our way.

Impact’s experiential approach can help with 'hard to teach' abilities like agility, enabling individuals to build an ongoing practice of living leadership action. Building organizational agility also requires the development of workplace environments that embrace and promote agile practices and mindsets. For example, an organization that is committed to a culture of continuous improvement is far better positioned to respond appropriately to agile leadership than one that is not. Look out for a follow-up article, which will address key characteristics of organizational agility and how to nurture them in your organization. 

David Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Impact Americas.