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Agile Leadership Emerges

There are several definitions for 'agile' including:

·  to move quickly and easily,

·  to think quickly and clearly, and

·  to be mentally acute or aware

Agile Leadership can be defined as a leadership approach which centers' on a learned mindset of adaptation. Yes, it can be learned and developed. While many leaders think they easily adapt to changing situations, in reality, humans are creatures of habit and routine, according to John M. Grohol, Psy.D:

Just as it takes us 20 years or more to develop our adult personalities, we're also developing behaviors and habits that will stay with us for a lifetime. Unfortunately, some of those behaviors and habits are not always healthy or helpful to us.

While rooted in agile software development and initially referred to leading self-organizing development teams, the concept of Agile Leadership is now used more generally to denote an approach to people and team leadership that is focused on boosting adaptiveness in highly dynamic and complex business environments.

Are you a leader who is the expert?

Are you the person your staff comes to for fixing problems and providing solutions?

Leaders do need to obtain a certain level of technical competence to establish their credibility, but too much expertise becomes a crutch that is very hard to let go. In Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done, the authors suggest that these 'leaders as experts' too easily fail to leverage a growth mindset that comes with agility.

"Experts are often hindered by fixed mindsets and narrow views, which result from their years of experience. Great leaders, however, are able to remain open and to adapt, no matter how experienced they are. They succeed because they are able to continually learn."

As a Growth Coach, I see this often in developing leaders, especially as people scale the leadership "pipeline", moving from managing self, to others, to teams, to functions or projects, and to Chief Executive or C-suite and governance roles. Lack of agility can be huge barrier for Small-Medium Businesses (SMEs) or a huge opportunity, if leaders in smaller businesses leverage, what are often  more nimble and smaller operating systems.

Here are 3 reasons Agile Leadership is growing in importance:

1. Technology: Technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate. New technologies like AI, blockchain, and social media need to be understood and integrated into business processes to stay competitive. Businesses face diverse challenges related to culture, regulations, and market dynamics with shifting supply chains and global remote workforces.

2. Business Operating Environment: Customer preferences and expectations are continuously changing. It's critical that all employees are connected to the 'voice of the customer' allowing businesses to respond swiftly to customer feedback and market demands to ensure products and services remain relevant and customer focused. More frequent reassessing of strategies and adjusting course are needed to help minimize potential negative impacts on the business. The business landscape is becoming increasingly complex and uncertain, with traditional top-down management approaches struggling in such environments. Businesses that are unable to navigate complexity effectively too often fail to execute on their growth plan. Innovation is crucial for staying ahead in the market and without experimentation, creativity, and a willingness to take risks, it’s difficult to foster an innovative culture.

3. Empowering Employees: Decentralized decision-making allows teams to make decisions quickly based on real-time data and feedback. This agility in decision-making is vital in responding promptly to market changes and customer needs. Engaged and motivated employees are more productive and creative, leading to better overall organizational performance. The need to effectively manage diverse teams with openness and inclusivity is essential for a strong culture that define how people work together effectively. Iterative development and continuous improvement must be fostered for a culture of learning and adaptation, ensuring that the organization continually evolves and enhances its processes and products.

While there are various leadership models, including traditional and contemporary approaches, Agile Leadership stands out in several ways. Here are 5 key differences:

1.      Adaptability and Flexibility:

Agile Leadership emphasizes adaptability and flexibility in the face of change. It recognizes that in today's fast-paced and dynamic environments, leaders need to be responsive to changes and open to adjusting strategies as needed. It promotes iterative and incremental progress. This involves breaking down plans and projects into smaller, manageable increments (sprints), quarterly and monthly, to deliver value regularly. With more frequent feedback and post project reviews, this approach allows for continuous improvement and adjustment.

Most traditional leadership models may be more rigid and hierarchical, relying on established structures and processes that can be resistant to change. Many follow a more linear and sequential approach, with projects progressing through distinct phases and staff to be performance managed accordingly. Changes may be more challenging to implement once a project is underway.

2.      Collaboration and Empowerment:

Agile Leadership encourages collaboration and empowerment of team members. Agile leaders focus on creating an environment where teams can self-organize and make decisions collectively. There's an emphasis on trust and collaboration among team members.

Traditional leadership models may be more authoritative, with decisions flowing down from the top. This can lead to a more hierarchical structure where power is concentrated at the higher levels of the organization. This ‘pyramid of power’ with decisions centralized toward senior leadership, limits the capability of all employees to fully contribute within shorter timelines.

3.      Customer-Centric Focus:

Agile Leadership prioritizes customer satisfaction and feedback. Delivering products or services that meet customer (external and internal) needs through continuous feedback loops is always front and center.

While customer satisfaction is a goal in most leadership models, the methods for achieving it may differ. Some traditional models may have a more internal focus on processes and structures with much less awareness and focus on customers.

4.      Risk Tolerance:

Agile Leadership tends to have a higher tolerance for risk. Agile leaders understand that experimentation and innovation involve a degree of uncertainty and are willing to take calculated risks. The culture supports and encourages learning from mistakes and setbacks which are essential to adapting faster and making quicker decisions.

Traditional leadership models are more risk-averse, seeking stability and predictability in operations, often staying very close to an approved plans and tactics, even when barriers and challenges arise.

5.      Emphasis on Individuals and Interactions:

Agile Leadership values individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It recognizes the importance of effective communication, collaboration, and the strengths of individual team members. People are truly the most valuable asset to the business.

Traditional models tend to place more emphasis on following established processes and using specific tools, while adhering to rigid and more hierarchical decision-making processes.

It's important to note that many organizations adopt a blend of leadership approaches based on their specific needs and context. Agile leadership has influenced leadership thinking across various industries, leading to a more adaptable and collaborative leadership mindset.


To develop your leadership to become more agile, what should you focus on?

Here are some key aspects of Agile Leadership and like all development, it’s important to focus on one or two areas at a time rather than overwhelming yourself with too much, too fast. Developing your leadership is a life-long journey! Here are 10 areas to select from and focus on:

1. Embracing Change:

Agile leaders are open to change and encourage their teams to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. They understand that change is inevitable and view it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Get familiar with models like ADKAR and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

2. Serve Teams:

Agile leaders serve their teams by providing support, removing obstacles, and facilitating communication. They prioritize the needs of their team members and empower them to make decisions.

3. Collaboration and Communication:

Agile leadership emphasizes the importance of collaboration and open communication. Leaders facilitate regular meetings, such as daily stand-ups, and create an environment where team members can openly discuss challenges and ideas. Creating psychological safety is a priority.

4. Building Self-Organizing Teams:

Agile leaders trust their teams to self-organize and make decisions collectively. They provide guidance and support but allow teams to choose the best way to accomplish their goals.

5. Focus on Continuous Improvement:

Agile leaders encourage a culture of continuous improvement. They facilitate retrospectives where teams reflect on their processes and identify areas for enhancement. Learning from both successes and failures is a fundamental aspect of agile leadership.

6. Adaptability and Flexibility:

Agile leaders are adaptable and can adjust their approach based on the specific needs of their team and project. They are willing to experiment with new ideas and approaches to find what works best.

7. Customer Focus:

Agile leaders keep the customer in mind, ensuring that the team's work aligns with customer needs and expectations. Key emphasize is delivering value to customers.

8. Result Oriented:

Agile leaders focus on delivering results. They set clear goals, track progress, hold people accountable, and celebrate achievements. They also help their teams stay focused on delivering high-quality products or services.

9. Promoting a Learning Culture:

Agile leaders encourage a culture of learning and skill development. They support continuous education and provide resources for team members to enhance their skills and knowledge.

10. Emotional Intelligence:

Agile leaders possess emotional intelligence, allowing them to understand and empathize with their team members. They are aware of team dynamics and individual motivations, which helps in building strong, cohesive teams. They have a high level of self-awareness while remaining humble and open to new thinking and ideas.

In How to Become an Agile Learner, the authors highlight that becoming an Agile Leader is not easy yet with a clear focus can be developed.

“Newness is never easy, as our brains prefer that we play it safe by doing things we’ve done before. It can also be hard to see how to use our skills successfully in situations that don’t feel familiar. Learning agility is an essential skill for individuals and capability for organizations, but it doesn’t happen by accident.”

In summary, agile leadership provides a framework for business and organizations to thrive in the face of constant change and uncertainty. Its emphasis on adaptability, collaboration, iterative innovation, forward focus and employee empowerment strongly aligns with the modern business landscape, making it increasingly essential for organizational success.

Jerome Dickey


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