Putting agile leadership into practice

March 8, 2021

What does it mean to be an agile leader? Why is it important?

Dictionaries define agility as the ability to move quickly and easily in response to change or challenge. In the modern business world, many leaders emphasize the importance of being “agile” – a management style characterised by a leader being flexible, adaptable and fast in their decision-making.

There are various ways in which leaders, agile coaches, and academicians have attempted to answer the question – What does it take to put agile leadership into practice?

Here are some key themes that emerged –

  • Being present to gain insights and listening intently – Being present, listening and asking powerful questions creates greater awareness in addressing the right challenges facing the team. Agile leaders communicate and motivate as they navigate new waters to chart new successes. The ability to listen, learn and adapt one’s position is a valuable skill that requires vulnerability, confidence and psychological safety.
  • Inspiring creativity and innovation in your team members – Leaders must inspire creativity and innovation within team members so that, as the organization propels forward, team members are directly contributing. Agile leaders don’t get stuck in what change means to them; instead, they take pride in being resilient and creative in their approach. Agility is also understanding that it is never one-size-fits-all and valuing the team’s contribution by understanding and being what they need.
  • Moving quickly, having the flexibility and adapting to any situation as it happens – The company that moves faster to solve a problem, create a product or respond to a need will be the business that wins. Being agile also means you are able to quickly adapt to situations as they come along. Leaders who can look at the big picture, break it down into smaller chunks, and then move forward, are more productive. Being agile means being willing to quickly let go of what is not working and try something else.

What sets agile leadership apart from traditional leadership?

The dominant traditional organization model looks at an organisation as a machine, with a static, siloed, structural hierarchy that operates through linear planning and control to execute one or very few business models. It evolved primarily for stability in a well-known environment.

In the current scenario and the ever-changing environment, for many organizations, surviving and thriving depends on making a transformation to become more agile. Agile organizations, as opposed to the traditional organisations, are both stable and dynamic. With an agile perspective, the organisation is viewed as a living system, which continuously evolves to thrive in an unpredictable, uncertain and rapidly changing environment. They focus on customers, fluidly adapt to environmental changes, and are open, inclusive, and nonhierarchical.

Below is a table that traces what it takes to transform from traditional management to agile leadership –

Traditional Management ➡️ Agile Leadership
Predictive, long-term planning Provision of vision, strategy, and direction
Control of work, task assignment Fostering self-organization
Maximize utilization and capacity Supporting teams by removing what is impeding them
The go-to problem fixer for subordinates Let those closest to the problem figure out a solution
Motivating others by extrinsic incentives (bonuses, titles, etc.) Motivating others by enabling autonomy, mastery, and purpose
Information flows up the hierarchy (reports, meetings) Management moves to where the information lies

What do leaders need to change about themselves for this transition? – Skills, beliefs and behaviors

This new kind of agile organization requires a fundamentally different kind of leadership. Broadly speaking, leaders need three sets of capabilities for agile transformations.

Looking inside – Inner Focus : First, they must transform themselves to evolve new personal mind-sets and behaviors. This entails shifting from reactive to creative mind-sets. A reactive mind has been trained to be in control and relying on past experiences to govern the present and the future. While a creative mind-set, a shift towards an agile leadership, shifts attention to discovery, seeking diversity in ideas and thoughts, embracing risk and not being scared to experiment. A change in mind-set also required a shift from authority to more collaborative spirit. In traditional organisations, the relationship between leaders and teams is one of superior to subordinate, where there are clearly defined and rigid hierarchies. Agile organisations, however, emphasise autonomous teams, with partnership based on freedom and trust.

Looking at others – Team Focus : Second, they need to transform their teams to work in new ways. This entails a shift in the way teams are viewed in the organisations and an increased trust in the team to best decide how to accomplish work and achieve the goal. It also involves a belief that building teams that are small, diverse, empowered, and connected is crucial to success. This kind of a shift means adopting values of openness and respect.

Bird’s eye view – Building Blocks : Third, it’s essential to build the capabilities to transform the organization by building agility into the design and culture of the whole enterprise. This is a step towards co-creation of vision of the organisation. To design and build an agile organization, leaders must learn to design their organization as a continually evolving system. Such an organization comprises a network of smaller empowered units, with fewer layers, greater transparency, and leaner governance than a traditional model. It also entails an acceptance that the future is complex and cannot be predicted, hence the push to apply different approaches when dealing with creative solutions in an unchartered territory.

A move towards an agile leadership also involves a transformation in the organisational culture which fosters delegation, providing timely feedback, positive accountability (that involves holding teams accountable in a positive and principled way), creating psychological safety in teams, learning to let go of control and adopting a model that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change. Co-creating a shared vision and purpose of the organisation pushes leaders to learn to sense and draw out the organization’s purpose in conversation with people across the enterprise.

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