What is Leadership Agility?

Agile leaders realize that we live in an era of permanent change, a turbulent global environment that is complex, uncertain, and fiercely competitive. They know that these realities require them and their organizations to adapt again and again to constantly changing conditions.

Agile leaders have an intentional, proactive approach to change. 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.


 The changing global economy

If you’re a manager, no one needs to remind you that we live in a global economy that constantly bombards us with change and complexity. Every year, new technologies, markets, and competitors emerge at an ever-increasing pace. As change accelerates, so do novelty and uncertainty. Future threats and opportunities become harder to predict. We also live in an increasingly complex, interconnected world, where quality attention to internal and external customers, strategic allies, and other stakeholders is essential for business success.


 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.

To enjoy sustained success, companies need to develop a level of organizational agility that matches the increasing level of change and complexity in their business environment. 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 the 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. 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.

For information on the Leadership Agility training and workshops and the Leadership Agility 360 psychometric instrument please contact us at: MindBridge Training Institute USA:+919 771-2227  – UAE:+971 (0)4 319 9030


 Levels of agility

Research reported in our book, Leadership Agility (Jossey-Bass, 2006), shows that there are five distinct levels in the mastery of this vital competency. Each new level of agility represents an ability to respond effectively to an increased level of change and complexity. Strikingly, this research indicates that only about 10% of managers have mastered the level of agility needed for consistently effective leadership in today’s turbulent world economy.

In the chart that begins on the next page, you will find profiles that show how managers at each agility level conduct themselves while carrying out initiatives in three action arenas: changing organizations, developing teams, and navigating pivotal conversations. Based on data collected from over 700 managers, we estimate that about 90% of managers operate at the pre-Expert, Expert, or Achiever levels of agility. The Expert level, with its tactical, problem-solving orientation, is best suited for relatively stable environments where complexity is fairly low. The Achiever level, with its strategic, outcome-orientation, is effective in moderately complex environments where the pace of change is moderate and episodic.

Each level of agility includes and goes beyond the skills and capacities developed at previous levels. Percentages refer to research-based estimates of the managers currently capable of operating at each agility level.

The predominant combination of Expert and Achiever leadership worked relatively well for most companies until the waning decades of the 20tth century, when the globalization of the economy ushered in an era of continuous change and growing interdependence. Generally speaking, consistent, effective leadership in this uncertain environment requires, at minimum, mastery of the visionary, facilitative orientation found at the Catalyst level of agility.


 Post-heroic leaders

Managers who operate at the higher levels of agility needed for sustained success in today’s turbulent environment have a different mindset about what it means to be a leader. In their book, Power Up: Transforming organizations through shared leadership, David Bradford and Allan Cohen distinguish between “heroic” and “post-heroic” leadership. We found that managers at the Expert and Achiever levels of agility operate from an heroic leadership mindset. That is, they assume sole responsibility for setting their organization’s objectives, coordinating the activities of their direct reports, and managing their performance.

Heroic leaders can be highly effective in certain situations. However, in complex, rapidly changing organizational environments, heroic leadership over-controls and under- utilizes subordinates. It discourages people from feeling responsible for anything beyond their assigned area, inhibits optimal teamwork, and implicitly encourages subordinates to use the heroic approach with their own units.

Leaders who operate at the Catalyst level or beyond practice what Bradford and Cohen call post-heroic leadership. As you saw in Robert’s story, these leaders retain the ultimate accountability and authority that comes with their role, yet they create work environments characterized by high involvement and shared responsibility.


 The four leadership agility competencies

To better understand leadership agility and the best ways to develop it, we conducted a multi-year research project that used questionnaires, in-depth interviews, and client case studies and journals to examine the thought-processes and behaviors of hundreds of managers. A key finding was that those leaders who are most successful in turbulent environments are skilled in four mutually reinforcing leadership agility competencies.


 Context-setting agility

Leaders use context-setting agility to scan their environment, anticipate important changes, and decide what initiatives they need to take. This leadership agility competency also includes the ability to determine the optimal scope of an initiative and the outcomes it needs to achieve. When leaders grow into the post-heroic levels, they expand their thinking to include relevant longer-term trends that extend beyond the boundaries of their company’s industry. When the timing is right, they have the ability to undertake visionary initiatives that are personally meaningful and beneficial for their organization and its key stakeholders.


 Stakeholder agility

Leaders use stakeholder agility to identify the key stakeholders of an initiative, understand what they have at stake, and assess the extent to which their views and objectives are aligned with their own. This leadership agility competency also includes the ability to engage with stakeholders in ways that lead to more optimal alignment. Post-heroic leaders have an ability to enter deeply into frames of reference that differ from their own while still honoring their own perspective. 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 initiatives.

For example, while the former oil company president focused on shareholders and customers, Robert sought input from a wide variety of additional stakeholders in creating new strategies, including suppliers, bankers, environmental groups, industry thought- leaders, and a broad cross-section of employees. He and his management team sought this input not just to make people feel involved; they used it to help create their strategies.


 Creative agility

Leaders use creative agility to transform complex, novel issues into desired results. Post-heroic leaders begin their initiatives with a keen appreciation of the novelty inherent in the situation they are addressing, even if it seems highly familiar. Because they have a deep understanding of the limitations of any single perspective, they conduct their initiatives in a manner that encourages the expression of multiple views and the questioning of underlying assumptions. When they encounter apparent opposites (short- term vs. long-term, practical vs. idealistic), their willingness to experience the tension between them increases their ability to discover creative solutions.

For example, Robert asked us to design and facilitate a series of “idea factories” that promoted creative thinking about strategic possibilities. He then arranged a two-day off-site meeting we helped him and his team take the hundreds of ideas that were generated and creatively synthesize them with other ideas developed by his team and the world-class strategy firm. This process led to several important strategies that came almost exclusively from possibilities generated by employees and other stakeholders.


 Self-leadership agility

In Mastering Self-Leadership Charles Manz and Christopher Neck say, “If we ever hope to be effective leaders of others, we need first to be able to lead ourselves effectively.” Managers engage in self-leadership by determining the kind of leader they want to be, using their everyday initiatives to experiment toward this aspiration, and then reflecting on these experiences. Leaders at the post-heroic levels understand that their self-awareness is more partial than they assumed at previous levels. Consequently, they develop a strong interest in becoming aware of behaviors, feelings, and assumptions that would normally escape their conscious attention. They are motivated to increase their self-awareness and more fully align their behavior with their values and aspirations. As their self-awareness deepens and becomes more complete, they increasingly find that personal growth fuels their professional development.


 Putting it all together

Highly effective leaders use the four leadership agility competencies in concert with one another. While it is best to begin an initiative by explicitly setting the context, highly effective leaders begin to engage with stakeholders while they set the context for their initiatives. They also begin to think about ways they can use the initiative to stretch as a leader.

Creative agility is particularly useful in working on the specific problems and opportunities encountered in the process of planning and implementing an initiative. To maximize your effectiveness, you also need to engage key stakeholders in creative problem solving, and you need to be proactive in learning from your experience as you go along. In addition, new developments in the larger context may require you to use context-setting agility to reconsider your initiative’s scope and objectives.


 Assessing leadership agility

As we noted earlier, the development of higher levels of leadership agility is essential not only for top managers but for people at all organizational levels. If you want to increase your own leadership agility and help those who report to you do the same, you can start by doing two informal assessments: 2

First, use the chart presented earlier to assess your own level of agility. To supplement your self-assessment, ask a few trusted colleagues to tell you where they think you are most of the time. Then ask yourself whether you want to develop to the next level. Developing increased agility will make you more effective in carrying out your everyday leadership initiatives, and it will aid you in helping others become more effective leaders. Second, use the same chart to assess your managers’ agility levels. Compare their current levels with where you think they need to be.

If you want to make more detailed assessments of leadership agility, you can ask yourself whether you and those who report to you exhibit differing levels of agility in each of the three leadership arenas designated in the chart. For example, you might conclude that someone operates primarily at one level when they initiate organizational change and mainly at another level when they lead teams and engage in pivotal conversations. Another way to make a more detailed assessment is to look at yourself and others through the lens of the four leadership agility competencies and ask where each person’s primary strengths and limitations lie.


 Developing leadership agility

In our experience, the best support for increasing your agility is a workshop, action learning program, or coaching relationship that focuses specifically on leadership agility. Ultimately, however, the primary “engine” for developing leadership agility is self-leadership: Start by assessing your current agility level and your strengths and limitations in the four leadership agility competencies. Then set your leadership development goals. Do you want to move to a new level of agility? Even if you don’t want to move to another level, what leadership agility competencies do you want to develop further within your current level?

Once you’ve set your leadership development goals, the key to increasing your agility is to use your everyday initiatives to experiment with more agile behaviors. At the heart of self-leadership and the other three competencies is a practice we call “reflective action.” This is an ongoing, cyclical process of setting objectives, clarifying a strategy or plan for achieving these objectives, taking action, then reflecting on your experience. Reflective action can be very rapid and intuitive, as in the midst of a conversation, or it can be more sustained and systematic, as in developing a new business strategy.

Whatever form it takes in a particular situation, repeatedly engaging in this practice allows you to use your everyday leadership initiatives to develop all four leadership agility competencies. This is because each of these competencies involves stepping back from your current focus in a way that generates new insights and helps you make wiser decisions, then re-engaging in what needs to be done next:

  • Context-setting agility is developed by stepping back and re-examining current priorities in light of the changes taking place in your larger environment.
  • Stakeholder agility is enhanced by stepping back from your own views and objectives to consider the needs and perspectives of those who are influenced by your initiatives.
  • Creative agility increases by stepping back from your habitual assumptions and developing optimal solutions to the often novel and complex issues you face.
  • Self-leadership agility is developed by stepping back, reflecting on yourself, and experimenting with new and more effective behaviors.


 Developing other leaders

There are many things you can do to help those who report to you become more effective leaders. One is to provide your managers with opportunities that will challenge them to take their next steps in developing their leadership capacities. Another is to provide effective coaching. Combining these two approaches is even more effective.

When coaching your managers, keep in mind that they will derive the greatest benefit from this process if you use your coaching interactions to help them establish their own commitment to reflective action. As the old proverb says: “If you give someone a fish, they can eat for a day. If you teach them how to fish, they can eat for a lifetime.”

In our experience, the secret to helping others develop as leaders is to model reflective action by integrating this practice into your own life: Get in the habit of taking brief reflective pauses throughout your day, particularly in the four areas we’ve identified: Am I focusing on what’s most important right now? Who else has a stake in my initiative, and how can I work with them to make it successful? What non-routine obstacles do I face, and how can I be imaginative in resolving them? What can I learn from the conversation, the day, or the project I’ve just completed?

The more you nurture a resilient, self-empowering attitude toward the challenges you face, the more your own commitment to reflective action will grow. With this practice as your ally, you’ll be able to meet the changes and complications that come your way with curiosity and optimism – and you’ll be able to help others to do the same.

© Bill Joiner & Stephen Josephs. (published in The OD Practitioner, vol. 38, no. 3; 2006)
Jerry Seavey is a licensed and certified Leadership Agility Facilitator and & ICF PCC Coach
For information on  Leadership Agility training and the Leadership Agility 360 psychometric instrument please contact us at: MindBridge Training Institute USA:+919 771 2227  – UAE: +971 (0)4 319 9030