Why Leadership ‘Agility’ is no Longer a ‘Nice to Have’ Capability?
In a recent CEO study, based on interviews with over 1,500 CEO’s worldwide, two primary themes emerged that had not appeared in previous surveys. The first theme was managing complexity and the second was developing the creative capacity in the organization to innovate; both in response to ever shifting marketplace demands, in a world of escalating turbulence.
Speed, combined with flexibility of response and adaptability to change is the CEO’s challenge of greatest concern (The Conference Board, 2010)
In the last 50 years, we have generated more knowledge than in the past 50,000. Since 2010, the pace of change has continued unabated, requiring constant learning and intelligent responses by organisations to shifting and evolving employee, customer, shareholder, and stakeholder expectations. Competition for knowledge and our ability to share and co-create it in real time is essential for re-generation and re-invention. As the graph below illustrates, the lifespan of business is shortening, and the same principle applies to work teams and personal careers. Without agility, we will find ourselves stuck in a position which the world no longer wants.
Consequently, leadership agility and the organizational agility it creates, is vitally important for delivering sustainable success.
Leadership by itself is generally considered ‘to be like beauty; it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it’. The importance of this quote is leadership is both exhibited by the leader/s and perceived by the follower/s. Leadership comprises a context specific, two-way, social influence ‘happening’ between people, which consequently has impact on the perception of what is viewed as most important during change within the organisation, and throughout the external relationships with customers, shareholders, suppliers and other stakeholders, including the community within which the business operates. In this sense all these parties are the customers of the leadership which they receive. Without a high quantity of quality communications and relationships, there will be insufficient knowledge exchange to ensure individual, team and organisational viability, i.e. there will be insufficient agility to respond effectively to any change.
Leaders shape followers perceptions and expectations through how they practice leadership. In this way the ‘leader’ addresses the key question, ‘why should anyone be led by me?’ Likewise, followers need to learn how to support the emergence of leadership through their own followership, and by doing so they also learn more about their own leadership. In any situation there is no leadership present if followership does not exist, regardless of job titles. In fact, leadership seen only as a product of status or position in the hierarchy often gets in the way of front line ‘agile’ responses to the emerging market and customer propositions and demands.
What is Leadership Agility?
The term leadership agility is a quick way to describe the individual, team and organisational capability and capacity to access and utilise a suitably diverse range of connected relationships, knowledge and expertise for achieving three things:
Noticing and understanding the implications for everyone of changes in the business context (internal and external)
Communicating and using that understanding in a way that enables others to innovate and adapt appropriately, thereby maintaining performance levels during change
Delivering sustainable performance improvements by embedding the capacity to change (dynamically), into a work culture and operating system where agile leadership is continuously practiced
Paradoxically, even though most organisations have one or more change management programmes in place at any one time, senior executives often complain about a shortage of change leadership capability to make the changes happen and stick. At the same time, senior professionals or middle managers often feel that opportunities to grow and shine are few and far between; either there is too little time or budget available for learning, or limited focused investment in supported on-the-job change leadership development, as they try and cope with the extra cognitive and emotional demands of navigating change. Meanwhile, employees always complain about the lack of communication from ‘the top’; usually down to poor translation of the change in terms of what it means in their language and within their work, rather than the total communication effort per se.
Many experts suggest that ‘embracing inconsistencies’ is a primary role of leadership. Leaders need to be good at holding the tension created by apparently conflicting requirements; they need to engage with the challenge of finding solutions that are more inclusive and representative of the diversity of interests and satisfy the differing priorities emanating from various areas of expertise. It is often an uncomfortable position to find your-self in. As modern organisations become more complex, leaders face more and more paradox as they navigate transitions. They have to try to maintain some sense of stability and continuity in an ever changing world; for example, work to reconcile local needs with global interests, decide when to build on existing knowledge and when to unlearn because the approach is no longer fit for purpose.
In our work with clients we break leadership agility down into 12 practices and through this framework first examine how change is impacting their context and explore the challenges this presents. Then, in turn, we look at each of the practices as they relate to predicting, implementing and embedding organisational change. These phases represent the natural change cycle of renewal, survival and thriving; with the latter phase often overlooked in change programmes. Through this process, learners get a real sense of their everyday priorities in being able to respond and adapt to ever changing circumstances and conditions at work, plus life in general. In this way, the learning enables managers and subsequently, the staff they manage, to move towards mastery of leadership agility. Indeed, one of the practices of mastering leadership agility is to support one another in developing the best leadership you can; so we also encourage development of collective, as well as individual, leadership. By doing so, clients also grow their next generation of leaders.
The more people practice the practices, both individually and together, the more likely the organisation will generate the cultural conditions and climate conducive to knowledge sharing, learning, engagement and collaboration. The role of leadership is to facilitate the growth of these conditions in a way which uses difference, novelty, unfamiliarity, tension between stability and change, in a positive way. Creating this stimulation, adaptation and growth prevents degeneration into the politics, conflict and uncertainty that often leaves people feeling uncomfortable, de-motivated and resistant to change. Using the 12 leadership agility practices as a live, every day, dynamic, on-going link of leadership development with work application, will resolve these issues.
This ‘in the moment’ leadership agility learning is vital for individual, team and whole of organization survival, thriving and renewal in an interconnected and often chaotic world.
What is leadership agility made up of?
The 12 leadership agility practices are learned capabilities that require extensive exposure to and practice in a broad variety of experiences where influencing others is key; supported by reflection and personal coaching/team facilitation, producing a level of emotional and mental resilience to change in the learner and by extension those who they manage and coach, that develops through continued application over time. We know that it is possible to fast track this elusive capability by focusing on which of the practices the business needs at any particular part of the change cycle.
These leader-follower relationships and what takes place on a daily basis, are at the heart and art of improving and sustaining leadership agility within its context, and by extension the organisation’s performance and its continuing viability; especially through intense periods of change. Invariably, under these often trying circumstances, the purpose and values of leadership and the organisation itself comes under scrutiny and begins to be questioned or actively challenged, either openly or privately by those who are associated with it. Reputations can be enhanced or damaged in the process.
In particular learners will be better able to:
understand the mechanisms which underpin outstandingly productive leader-follower relationships
understand the nature, operational detail and potential impact of 12, evidence based, leadership agility practices
understand the impact of purpose and personal values on leadership practice and organisational outcomes
explore the key principles and processes of sustaining a viable business during constant change
produce an action plan for enhancing their own contextualised leadership agility practice and related business development
track progress towards achieving mastery, and therefore sustainable individual, team and organizational success.
Those who can remain agile will continue to lead within their sector.
To cope with different phases of change and the complexity of human behaviour, motivation and interests, leaders need to be personally agile, utilising values as their guiding compass and using the appropriate leadership practice/s to help people learn and change, whilst securing and sustaining elite performance. Our Mastering Leadership Agility approach assists managers to develop, select and combine twelve different leadership practices to suit the particular demands of the change challenge confronting them. The three phases are:
PHASE 1 - Predicting transitions (Strategy-Project Initiation/Development) PRACTICES 1-5
Here the focus is on building the individual and collective (values guided) intelligence to detect shifts in the internal and external operating environment, particularly within employees, stakeholders and customers, in order to guide strategic responses.
PHASE 2 - Implementing transitions (Strategy-Project Implementation) PRACTICES 6-8
The emphasis shifts to building individual and collective leadership, whilst dealing openly with the positive and negative reactions to change, especially those related to values and cultural differences.
PHASE 3 - Embedding transitions (Strategy-Project Consolidation & Review) PRACTICES 9-12
Most commonly the cause of ‘failure’, the intention here is to build individual and collective performance around the intended changes, thereby sustaining them beyond the implementation phase; or, if necessary, as a result of real-time assessment of progress, altering the transition goals if new circumstances present themselves through continued application of ‘predicting’ and ‘implementing’.
Having already used the approach with many management learners across the world, we know it is possible to fast track this elusive capability through targeted development, guided learning reflection, diligent application to real every-day leadership work, personal development planning, and auditing of business impact. In other words, it is vital to keep practising the practices until they become default ‘fitness for purpose’ agile leadership habits. Once learnt, the relationship, communication, and knowledge exchange skills will prove critical for all spheres of life, where deeper people connections are vital to learning and functioning well together in navigating the winds and waves of change.
 E.g. Tushman, ML Smith, WK and Binns, A (2011) The Ambidextrous CEO. Harvard Business Review vol 89 (iss) 6: 74-80. Nonaka, I and Takeuchi, H (2011) The wise leader. Harvard Business Review vol 89 (iss) 5: pp. 58-67.
 McKenzie, J., Woolf, N., Morgan C., and van Winkelen C. (2009). Cognition in strategic decision making: A model of non-conventional thinking capacities for complex situations. Management Decision, Vol. 47, No 2, pp. 209-232
About the Author
Dr Paul Aitken is a leadership ‘agility’ learning entrepreneur and CEO of Mastering Leadership Agility (MLA) Ltd. As an Alliance Partner with the Creative Leadership in Asia (CLIA) in Singapore, he also currently sits in the CLIA Academy as one of their Global Heads of Practice.
Contribution by STADA's member